‘Nothing but political downside’: Why Biden is staying far away from Trump’s impeachment trial

Joey Garrison
 
| USA TODAY

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Psaki: Biden won’t watch much of impeachment trial

White House press secretary Jen Psaki says President Joe Biden won’t “spend too much time watching” Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial this week. Psaki told reporters Monday Biden will leave the pace, process and mechanics to Congress. (Feb. 8)

AP

WASHINGTON — As the Senate begins the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, revisiting January’s deadly Capitol siege that took aim at American democracy, don’t look for hot takes from the White House. 

In his young presidency, Joe Biden has taken a hands-off approach to Trump’s impeachment, stopping short of saying whether senators should convict Trump for charges of inciting an insurrection. He’s also refrained from recommending a timeframe for the trial, which starts Tuesday, as he pushes his own legislative agenda.

The White House claims the president will be too busy to closely follow impeachment proceedings. The trial is taking center stage as Biden hopes for a swift passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in the coming weeks. The president also wants the Senate to confirm his remaining Cabinet nominees, including Merrick Garland as attorney general, which Republicans have held up. Senate Democrats insist they can handle both at the same time.

More: Amid calls for unity, President Biden and Republicans don’t agree what that looks like

For Biden, engaging in a divisive impeachment trial offers little political upside after he began his presidency calling for “unity” and bipartisanship. Instead, he’s sought to frame himself as interested only in bringing relief to Americans hurt by a pandemic and installing his Cabinet – not fixated by the politics of his predecessor. 

Biden deferred to the Senate when asked about impeachment in an interview Sunday with CBS.

“Look, I ran like hell to defeat (Trump) because I thought he was unfit to be president,” Biden said. “I’ve watched what everybody else watched, what happened when that – that crew invaded the United States Congress. But, I’m not in the Senate now. I’ll let the Senate make that decision.”

‘Let the Senate work that out’ 

The president Monday resisted another opportunity to weigh in after returning to the White House following a weekend trip to his hometown of Wilmington, Del. A reporter asked him whether Trump should lose his “political rights,” a reference to how, if convicted in the Senate, Trump would be unable to run for federal office again.

“He got an offer to come and testify,” Biden said of Trump. “He decided not to. Let the Senate work that out.”

More: Trump says he won’t testify at impeachment trial, denying Democrats’ request he answer questions

William Howell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said the president is making a fairly straightforward calculation.

“It’s not clear what the value-add is by his involvement,” he said. “And the downwide of him being involved in this is that he needs to devote all of his both political capital and his resources to advancing all kinds of policy agendas.”

Through his attorneys, Trump denied a request from Democrats, led by  Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., to have the former president answer questions under oath about his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. The attack, resulting in five deaths, came as Congress counted electoral votes confirming Biden’s victory and after Trump leveled baseless claims of voter fraud for weeks to falsely claim the election was stolen from him.

Democrats plan to argue that Trump’s Jan. 6 speech outside the White House – where he told his supporters, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” – incited the pro-Trump mob to storm the Capitol building.

In need of 17 Republican senators to convict Trump, the Democratic-led effort is widely seen as a longshot. Forty-five Senate Republicans went on record in a vote last month saying it is unconstitutional to convict a former president.

More: Senators take on unprecedented role as both jurors and witnesses in Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial

While Biden calling for Trump’s conviction might please some on the political left, he would open himself up to criticism: that he chose to engage in a hyper-partisan fight at the expense of his campaign pledges.

“He presented himself as a moderate who’s going to unify the country to meet the economic and health challenges that we now face,” Howell said. “And I think he just sees nothing but political downside associated with being involved in a highly partisan trial in the Senate.”

It’s also questionable whether Biden would have success convincing Republican senators to impeach Trump.

“I think the outcome is pretty locked in,” Howell said. 

Biden focused on COVID relief, not impeachment, White House says

At a White House press briefing Monday, press secretary Jen Psaki stayed on message – that the president has too many priorities to pay attention to the impeachment trial – as she faced a barrage of questions on Biden’s position.

“I think it’s clear from his schedule and from his intention, he will not spend too much time watching the (impeachment) proceedings at any time over the course of this week,” Psaki said after reading off the president’s full plate of commitments. “He will leave the pace and the process and the mechanics of the impeachment proceedings up to members of Congress.”

Psaki said “he’s retired from the Senate, he’s president of the United States” when pressed why Biden won’t weigh in on impeachment given that he stated Trump’s “erratic behavior” should prevent his access to post-presidency intelligence briefings. “His focus is getting relief for the American people,” she said.

More: Biden says Trump should no longer get intelligence briefings because of ‘erratic behavior’

Later, Psaki addressed whether Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would be updating Biden on the impeachment trial during their conversations this week. “I don’t expect that would be a primary topic,” Psaki said. “I actually expect it would be more about the American Rescue Plan and progress being made on that front.”

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said it’s “prudent politically” for Biden to remain quiet on impeachment because the issue is already poised to “suck up all the oxygen” in Congress. She said Biden doesn’t need the same in the White House while he’s working on policy.

“He is taking the presidency back to its norms of dignity and statesmanship, which have been sorely missing for the last four years,” Perry said. “So he’s playing the role of a statesman, which is not to get involved in the muck and mire of politics on Capitol Hill.”

Biden also has an interest in not dividing the electorate further, particularly as he enjoys a positive job-approval rating out of the gate. A Gallup poll last week found 57% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of his job – a higher number than Trump ever received. But Biden’s 37% disapproval rating, the result of widespread resistance from Republicans, is among the highest ever in a president’s first Gallup poll, trailing only Trump.

“He knows that 75 million people voted for Donald Trump,” Perry said. “Why get into that situation? He knows that 75% of Republicans don’t even thinks he’s a legitimate president. Why put off any more by going after Trump?”

More: Daily routine and a script are back in the Biden White House, but how long can it last?

Democrats pledge to keep on track with agenda despite trial

The most notable time Biden went off script on impeachment – predicting to CNN last month that the Senate lacked two-thirds majority to convict Trump – Psaki quickly sought to clean-up his remarks. 

“I can promise you that we will leave the vote counting to leaders in the Senate from now on,” Psaki said. 

Signaling a commitment to push Biden’s agenda forward even during the trial, the Democratic-led Senate is scheduled to process multiple Biden nominations this week. That includes hearings for his Office of Management and Budget pick Neera Tanden and Labor Secretary nominee Marty Walsh and a committee vote on Michael Regan, his nominee to lead the Environmental Protect Agency.

“Even as senators prepare this week to sit as a court of impeachment, the Senate will continue its work on other responsibilities,” Schumer said Monday.

Biden has gotten some pushback for not being vocal about Trump’s impeachment, but not much from from Democrats wanting Trump convicted. Some Republicans accused Biden of abandoning his call for unity by not asking the House to call off the impeachment before he was sworn in.

“If President-elect Joe Biden had asked Democrats in the House to forego this route, they would have done so,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “And I can’t think of a more unifying act that he could have done.”

Even amid a contentious impeachment trial, Psaki said Biden can deliver on his unity pledge – by working to pass COVID-19 relief, re-open schools and increase vaccinations. 

“That’s how he’s spending his time as we started this briefing and how he will continue to spend it moving forward,” Psaki said. 

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

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