WASHINGTON — In 2020, the moniker was “Sleepy Joe.” Now, it has been revised to “Crooked Joe.”
During their first showdown, Donald Trump disparaged Joe Biden as “a sleepy guy in the basement of a house” who was barely aware of his surroundings. Now, facing four criminal indictments and gearing up for a 2024 rematch, the former president is changing course to depict his successor as a nefarious mastermind who is pulling the strings of a complex justice system without leaving any fingerprints.
In a social media post Tuesday, Trump wrote: “These Indictments and lawsuits are all part of my political opponents campaign plan. It is Election Interference, and they are going to use the DOJ/FBI to help them, which is illegal. Crooked Joe pushed this litigation hard to get it done. This is a new low in Presidential Politics.”
Trump has deployed the term “Crooked Joe” in a wave of recent posts and interviews, making repeated and baseless claims that Biden is at the helm of a conspiracy to target him using law enforcement. But even as he attempts an etch-a-sketch to redraw his portrait of Biden, Trump sometimes slips back into old habits by portraying the man who defeated him as a confused and feeble old fellow who may not even make it to 2024.
“Crooked Joe Biden is so bad. He’s the worst president in the history of our country. I don’t think he’s going to make it to the gate, but you never know,” Trump told right-wing commentator Tucker Carlson in an interview released last week. “I think he’s worse mentally than he is physically. And physically, he’s not exactly a triathlete or any kind of an athlete. You look at him, he can’t walk to the helicopter. He walks — he can’t lift his feet out of the grass.”
But with the "Crooked Joe" persona, Trump routinely implies that a man he has suggested is not mentally fit has secretly been manipulating the Justice Department — as well as state prosecutors he has no authority over, and even secretive grand juries who were legally required to approve the indictments — while covering his tracks so well that House Republican investigators with subpoena power struggle to uncover proof.
“I’m confused. Is dementia-riddled Joe Biden also controlling the people in all of these separate grand juries in four different jurisdictions in four states?” quipped former GOP operative-turned-Trump-critic Tim Miller on Bulwark's “The Next Level Podcast.”
There is no evidence that Biden is behind Trump’s indictments — two from special counsel Jack Smith, and one each from prosecutors in New York and Georgia who don’t answer to Washington. Yet the claims have been echoed by Speaker Kevin McCarthy and many congressional Republicans.
Biden has declined to comment on Trump’s cases, saying the Justice Department operates independently from his White House. He has also stayed silent on criminal charges against his son Hunter Biden, who is the subject of a special counsel investigation.
“Donald Trump is running on the same, unpopular agenda that lost him the election in 2020. No name-calling that he shouts into his MAGA echo chamber changes that fact,” Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said. “These are the same type of projections we’ve seen before from the person who led one of the most corrupt administrations in history. Donald Trump may come up with a lot of nicknames for President Biden, but we have a better one: winner.”
Sleepy and confused, or ruthless and effective?
At 80, Biden is already the oldest sitting president in American history. Trump, now 77, was the oldest president to assume office when he took the oath in January 2017. Trump would usurp Biden for the title of oldest president if he is elected and completes another four-year term.
From the early days of Biden's general election campaign in the 2020 cycle, the “Sleepy Joe” moniker took off in right-wing media, turning Biden into a punchline with Trump supporters on Republican-friendly political panels and social media. Over the last three years, every Biden slip-up or meandering comment has fed into the party's image of a befuddled old man who is overwhelmed by the job, drawing glee and mockery among the “MAGA” faithful.
Now, Trump is trying to turn that image upside down. At times, Biden’s political team has co-opted the updated narrative, blending it with an anti-Biden rallying cry to create a “Dark Brandon” meme that shows a red laser-eyed Biden who is ruthlessly, and successfully, facing down critics to pass his agenda.
Of the two contrasting critiques that Republicans are presenting, surveys show independent voters mostly don't buy the claim that Biden is weaponizing law enforcement for political reasons, but they are worried about his age.
A Politico/Ipsos survey found that 64% of independents agree that the Justice Department’s decision to indict Trump for election subversion in 2020 “was based on a fair evaluation of the evidence and the law.” (Overall, 59% of American adults said they agree.)
And just 40% of independents said they agree with the statement that the Justice Department's indictment of Trump in the 2020 case "was based on trying to gain a political advantage for Joe Biden." (Overall, 44% of U.S. adults said they agree with that viewpoint.)
Meanwhile, according to an Associated Press-NORC poll, 77% of U.S. adults say Biden is too old to serve effectively for another term, including 69% of Democrats and 74% of independents. By contrast, 51% of U.S. adults say Trump is too old.
A conflicting Republican portrait of Biden
The GOP's internal conflict on how to portray Biden — senile and incompetent, or corrupt and merciless — is also on display in the 2024 presidential primary, where a series of long-shot Republican candidates are promoting Trump’s grievances while hoping his front-running candidacy collapses.
In the first debate, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy accused the Democratic Party in power of using a “police force to indict its political opponents.” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., inveighed against “the weaponization of the Department of Justice” under Biden.
On the contrary, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is running with the claim that Biden is too weak and frail to survive another four-year term and warning that Vice President Kamala Harris would become president if he’s re-elected.
“If you vote for Joe Biden you really are counting on a President Harris,” Haley said this year. “Because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely.”
Trump, for his part, explained that he’s repurposing his nickname for his 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
“He’s a corrupt person. So corrupt that I took the name off Hillary,” the former president told Carlson. “I don’t do two people at one time. I took the Crooked Hillary and I made it, I retired the name. That was a good day for her. I bet she was very happy. And I used it for Joe because it’s Crooked Joe.”