WASHINGTON — A week after Donald Trump’s federal indictment, some Democrats are breaking with President Joe Biden’s decision to stay silent about his opponent’s legal troubles, warning that Trump can’t be allowed to shape voters’ views of a criminal case that could decide the 2024 election.
Biden has given a message to White House aides and his broader re-election team that they should say nothing about Trump's legal troubles to avoid leaving the impression that he's misusing power for political advantage. But a variety of pro-Biden allies believe his stance isn't sustainable.
Worried that Trump's claim of political persecution might take hold if it's left unanswered, some Democrats insist the party needs to mount a full-throated defense of the law enforcement agencies that charged Trump with mishandling sensitive national security records. They also want to paint the indictment as a fresh example of the chaos another Trump presidential term would bring.
“It’s malpractice to let them dominate,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “The president needs to be above this, but his allies should be hitting him hard. Democrats should not be waiting until a general election to start defining this.”
The aide, who helped run a successful competitive midterm campaign and who requested anonymity to offer a frank assessment of his party's strategy, said Democrats are committing a grievous political error by allowing Trump to frame the indictment on his terms.
Tell voters: “These are serious charges. Look at Mike Pence. He was investigated, and he was cleared,” the aide said. “You have to hit it, hit it and hit it. You can’t rely on the public to interpret it the way you want them to.”
A Democratic donor, who also requested anonymity, echoed the sentiment, saying of the silence strategy: “I think he [Biden] is going to have to adjust that. I don’t think it’s sustainable to say nothing.”
Even first lady Jill Biden dipped a toe in the fight at a fundraising event Monday in New York City. In her remarks, she mentioned a poll she’d seen on television on her flight to New York that showed most Republicans were still planning to vote for Trump. “They don’t care about the indictment. So that’s a little shocking, I think,” she said. (A White House adviser said Jill Biden was merely drawing a contrast and illustrating the choice voters face.)
Trump, of course, hasn’t been quiet. He pleaded not guilty, and he has publicly dismissed his prosecution as purely political and at the behest of Biden. He denies any wrongdoing.
After the 37-count indictment was released, Biden and a small cadre of top aides gave “explicit direction” to the re-election campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the White House staff not to comment on the matter, said a person familiar with the directive.
The message was to respond with: “We do not comment. We respect the independence of the Department of Justice,” the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the White House’s private instructions.
The guidance was relayed to Democratic members of Congress, including those who have volunteered to serve as surrogates — the people the campaign taps to appear on television and promote Biden's re-election bid.
'Go on offense'
For some Democrats, however, the incentive to speak out may be too strong and the party may be too far-flung and decentralized to keep quiet. Even as Biden tries to avoid the appearance of influencing the prosecution, allies are filling the vacuum in ways that protect his interests while ensuring voters don't shrug off Trump's legal woes.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is looking to put Republicans on the spot about whether they’ll echo Trump’s calls to defund the Justice Department and the FBI — two agencies that investigated his handling of sensitive national security records.
"The DCCC will continue holding vulnerable House Republicans accountable for putting fealty to their party and federally-indicted, twice-impeached president over public safety,” spokesperson Courtney Rice said in a statement.
Far from standing down, the committee is seizing the chance to neutralize Republican attacks on Democrats as soft on crime, pointing to Memorial Day billboards it bought in swing districts spotlighting Republican lawmakers for not denouncing Trump’s attacks on law enforcement agencies.
In a Substack post this week, Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser in Barack Obama's White House, argued that Democrats’ “silence could end up being a mistake.”
“Democrats need to go on offense to push back on Trump’s messaging before he discredits the investigations and distracts the public,” Pfeiffer wrote.
Democratic consultant Tyler Law said Biden’s primary task in the 2024 campaign is “clarifying the choice” for voters, adding that Trump’s status as a “twice-indicted narcissist” will help drive home the difference between the two.
Democrats must counter the GOP narrative, he said.
“We should absolutely speak forcefully in defense of the rule of law and the FBI,” Law said. “Republicans are loudly and proudly anti-law enforcement, and that’s not a winning position outside of a narrow band of wing nuts.”
Another Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity, said Democrats shouldn't focus solely on an economic message, arguing it's short-sighted to forfeit the opportunity to showcase Trump’s legal peril — even when voters say they care most about so-called kitchen table issues.
“We’re often as a party too driven by ‘the polling shows people care about the economy the most,’ [therefore] we have to make the economic critique,” the strategist said. “In a lot of ways, we’re almost allowing him to fight on his own turf.
“Imagine during Watergate being like ‘What people really dislike about Nixon is his handling of the economy,’” the strategist said. “Economic mismanagement is not why Nixon resigned.
“There are a lot of Democrats who are not President Biden who can be making voters aware of this threat.”
'Must be some truth to this'
There’s nothing stopping Biden from discussing the indictment if he chooses, legal experts said. But having promised to bolster the Justice Department’s independence, he has steered clear of Trump's legal entanglements.
“The age-old wisdom in politics is not to get in the way of your opponent impaling himself,” said Jamal Simmons, a former communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris.
But the calculation may be different for lawmakers trying to tie their opponents to Trump.
“Being politicians, most of them will” speak out about Trump when asked, said Democratic former Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona. “They can’t help themselves.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who represents a state Trump won by nearly 40 points, was unsparing.
“Everyone should be concerned about this,” Manchin said in an interview. “The rule of law is for all of us.”
Biden might be betting that voters are tired of hearing about Trump. The research firm Engagious recently convened a focus group with 11 North Carolina voters who backed Trump in 2016 and switched to Biden in 2020, asking them about the indictment and other issues.
“There’s just an exhaustion with Trump and all of his travails,” said Rich Thau, the firm’s president. “It’s palpable in the conversations. Imagine that you get divorced and your ex-spouse is still being rubbed in your face every day.”
Steve Shurtleff, a Democratic former speaker of New Hampshire’s House of Representatives, said he would like a member of Congress, at least, to step forward and defend the law enforcement agencies Trump has targeted.
“Someone needs to push back,” Shurtleff said. “Otherwise, people will say there must be some truth to this — no one is saying anything in rebuttal.”