WASHINGTON (AFP) — What does US President Joe Biden have to say about Donald Trump? The golf match playing on Air Force One television screens on the day of Trump’s indictment made it clear: nothing.
With his main 2024 challenger due in court Tuesday to face unprecedented charges for an ex-president of obstructing justice and illegally hoarding top secret documents, Biden finds himself in a politically precarious position.
After all, it is a Justice Department headed by a man he appointed, Attorney General Merrick Garland, that will oversee the prosecution of an opponent.
Say anything — even express interest — in the fate of the far-right former president, and Biden will fuel fires already blazing among Republicans who believe Trump’s conspiracy theory that he is the victim of some “deep state” persecution.
Hence, switching televisions to the Golf Channel on Air Force One during a presidential trip to North Carolina on Friday — instead of the usual CNN, which that day was buzzing with images, reports, commentaries, and frantic chyrons about the just-unveiled indictment.
Asked about the case by reporters traveling on the plane, Biden’s answer was an emphatic, “No comment.”
Asked if he had even spoken with Garland, Biden also said no.
“And I have no comment on that.”
Under longstanding custom, the Justice Department is independent from the White House. Adding a further remove from politics, the man actually prosecuting Trump, Jack Smith, is a special counsel operating on a kind of legal island all of his own.
But in a United States where Republicans and Democrats have lost trust in each other and where the Republican leader, Trump, built his re-election campaign on the lie that Biden did not beat him in 2020, such gentleman’s agreements count for little.
Hence Biden’s strategy of staying clear of the biggest political development in the country — and from the man he will probably have to beat to win a second term next year.
“I think that President Biden’s behavior so far has been perfectly appropriate,” Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said.
“The special counsel has not had any contact with Garland or Biden on this case since he was appointed. Biden should continue to resist offering any public comment on the case. As president, he should leave that task to others, and allow the special counsel to prosecute the case.”
A problem with Biden’s keep-it-quiet strategy is that Biden has a tendency of saying things that many, not least his nervous staff, think he shouldn’t.
There was that time last year when an impassioned Biden, referring to President Vladimir Putin and his bloody invasion of neighboring Ukraine, said: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
The White House made clear after that it was not US policy to remove Putin.
Then there are the several occasions when Biden has gone further than standard US public statements on the commitment to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack — geopolitical thunderclaps routinely followed up by the White House with assurances that nothing has changed.
Maintaining radio silence on the Trump scandal may get exponentially more difficult as the campaign develops.
It is possible that the Republican may be on trial at the height of election season next year, making the subject near impossible to avoid — especially when Trump turns his trial into a vehicle to convey damaging conspiracy theories about supposed White House abuse of power.
Political scientist, and author of a book on the presidency, Lara Brown said Biden is doing the right thing — and that trying to address the issue would in any case be futile.
“Nothing good can come from him speaking publicly about the matter. The legal process will play out over the next many months, and whatever results come about will be statement enough,” she said.
“Trump’s supporters dislike and distrust Biden. Heck, many even fail to believe that he is the legitimate president.
“And there is nothing that can be said by any Democrat, let alone President Biden, to convince them that the Justice Department is acting in the interests of the rule of law and the American people.”