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Democrats are gaming out how to run against an indicted Trump

Lacking any precedent, an ecosystem of Democratic strategists, Biden loyalists and outside groups is test-driving ideas about how to wring advantage from Trump's legal woes.
Image: Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table with his defense team in a Manhattan court during his arraignment on April 4, 2023, in New York.
Donald Trump with his defense team during his arraignment in New York, on Tuesday.Seth Wenig / Pool via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — When news broke earlier this month that Donald Trump would be indicted in New York, leaders of a pro-Joe Biden group met privately to decide what to do. Should they fire off tweets broadcasting what had happened, or maybe send an email blast opining on Trump’s fate?

In the end, they did nothing.

“Why get your hands dirty if you don’t have to?” a person familiar with the group’s thinking said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely. “When you get into the ring with him [Trump] in this capacity, you’re no better than he is.” 

No guidebook exists for dealing with the first former president ever to face criminal charges, let alone one who is the current front-runner for the GOP nomination. Lacking any precedent, an ecosystem of Democratic strategists, Biden loyalists and outside groups is gaming out how to wring advantage from Trump’s mushrooming legal woes.

They’ve reached no consensus and, for now, are feeling their way through a fraught moment that presents both opportunity and peril for all sides, interviews with more than a dozen political operatives suggest. When opponents are struggling, every campaign’s instinct is to capitalize on their misfortune. Yet Trump is presumed innocent in a legal system that Biden has pledged to uphold, creating a conundrum for the operatives working to defeat Trump in 2024. 

“Democrats are a party guided by lawyers,” said Simon Rosenberg, a longtime party strategist.

With more criminal charges possible in the coming months, Trump’s indictment in Manhattan may prove a dry run for how Biden’s outside supporters respond. Georgia authorities are investigating Trump’s efforts to reverse his election loss in 2020 and wrest the state’s 16 electoral votes from Biden. At the same time, federal prosecutors are looking into Trump’s handling of classified records after he left the White House along with his broader effort to retain power despite his defeat.

A group called Facts First USA is plunging in, planning to showcase Trump’s difficulties in digital ads and social media messages while targeting congressional Republicans who’ve chosen to defend him. The group convened a Zoom call to discuss the indictment after it was made public Tuesday and has since had additional conversations about how “it can be leveraged for our purposes,” said David Brock, president of Facts First.

“The indictments,” he said, “are going to be the gift that keeps on giving for Democrats.”

Another group is trying to nail down an effective message. Anticipating that a Trump indictment in New York was imminent, a coalition of liberal pollsters late last month tested various ways to explain his legal troubles. Navigator Research surveyed more than 1,000 registered voters — Democrats, Republicans and independents alike — to gauge the best way to rebut Trump’s argument that he is the victim of a “witch hunt.”

In a memo titled, “Trump Indictment: A Guide for Advocates,” Navigator Research concluded that the most effective counter-argument is that “No one is above the law, not even a former president,” citing their finding that 61% found that idea more convincing than Trump’s claim of political persecution.

The message also draws a useful contrast from the Democrats’ perspective. If he decides to run again, Biden is expected to portray himself as a symbol of stability, compared to the tumult that surrounds Trump. Biden’s oft-repeated message that he is trying to restore the nation’s soul and respect the rule of law could seem especially pertinent amid the spectacle of a GOP presidential candidate fighting to stay out of jail.

The criminal charges that Trump faces are “just a reminder of the chaos that Trump brings,” said Jenn Ridder, a senior official in Biden’s 2020 campaign who is now seen as a top contender to be his new campaign manager. “Trump is the chaos; President Biden is working to help the American people.”

Still, many in the party are holding back, preferring to keep a tight focus on Biden’s record with the idea that Trump’s difficulties will draw so much attention that no amplification will be needed.

“This will block out the sun and supplant all other issues for the time being,” said Zac Petkanas, a longtime Democratic strategist. “So, I don’t anticipate [taking action] in the near term other than helping ensure that the media covers this correctly and helping them debunk misinformation from Trump allies, who are trying to diminish what is in fact a very serious criminal offense.”

At his arraignment Tuesday, Trump pleaded not guilty to the 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to hush money payments made in 2016 to women who alleged past encounters with then-presidential candidate Trump. Trump has consistently denied wrongdoing, as well as the encounters.

For Democrats, another complication is the belief among some inside the party that the indictment might not damage Trump all that much. Details of the pay-for-silence allegations have been widely known for the last five years.

“There’s a realization on the Democratic side that a lot of Donald Trump’s character flaws are baked into the cake and there’s limited mileage we can get out of them,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential bid.

But the calculus could always change depending on what happens next. Some Biden allies view the case in Georgia as more consequential. If the Fulton County district attorney leading the inquiry files criminal charges, they suggest, that might resonate more with voters as it evokes Trump’s attempts to defy the popular will.

“Georgia is a bigger deal,” said a national Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “It’s a reminder to voters that Donald Trump tried to overturn an election and the result of those efforts was Jan. 6,” when pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

(Trump has said he did nothing wrong and falsely claimed rampant fraud altered the vote in Georgia.)

Inside the White House, Biden and his staff are sticking to a simple script: say nothing. Anything Biden says about Trump’s entanglements would invite complaints that he’s meddling in the multiple criminal investigations that the former president faces.

The charges announced last week in Manhattan surprised the White House. Biden’s chief of staff, Jeff Zients, alerted him after aides learned of the indictment from news reports, White House aides said. Privately, people close to Biden have been trying to think through what the indictment might ultimately mean for the country, with one suggesting that it could speed up the federal investigation led by special counsel Jack Smith. (It’s not clear why that would be the case; there is no indication that Jack Smith is taking cues from the prosecution underway in New York).

One perk of having essentially cleared the field in the 2024 Democratic primary is that Biden can say as much or as little as he wants, knowing that the entire party apparatus is looking after his interests.

As he juggles court hearings and campaign rallies, debates and depositions, Trump may not be able to expect the same level of fealty. Though most GOP candidates have voiced support for Trump and said his prosecution is politically motivated, his most serious rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, took a veiled swipe at him by repeating some of the more embarrassing details of the case. “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” said DeSantis.

That the party’s various factions coalesced behind Biden would have been hard to predict when his presidency began. The party’s liberal wing, in particular, had bristled at Biden’s refusal to embrace a Medicare-for-all health care system. But he has quelled internal dissent.

Asked about that dynamic, Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who co-chaired Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid, said: “Who in their right mind would want to run against Donald Trump? God bless the president for wanting to run. Would you want your family to go through this against Donald Trump?”