The White House has a new messaging challenge on its hands: Donald Trump.
President Biden, wary of appearing to influence the ongoing Justice Department investigation into the former president, doesn’t want to talk about the FBI search earlier this week at Mar-a-Lago.
Democrats say that’s the right approach, but it means Republicans hurling accusations and condemnations at the Justice Department and FBI will largely go unanswered by the White House. It also suggests that Biden is likely to shy away from openly criticizing his predecessor for the time being, despite most signs pointing to a Trump-Biden rematch in 2024.
Instead, White House officials are trying to focus on Biden’s accomplishments — which have grown substantially in recent weeks — but the frenzy surrounding the Trump probe threatens to drown out those efforts.
“It’s a tricky spot to be in, for the White House,” one Democratic strategist said. “On the one hand, you really can’t be out in front of it. On the other hand, you don’t want the narrative to be locked in and that people assume there was some conspiracy here.”
News of the FBI search on Trump’s property — the first targeting a former president in the nation’s history — sent shockwaves through Washington when Trump disclosed it in a statement on Monday.
In the days since, Trump’s Republican allies have heaped criticism on Biden, the Justice Department, and the FBI, lobbing accusations about politicization and bias and vowing congressional investigations should they retake Congress after the November midterms.
The White House has largely ignored the developments, except to make clear that officials are keeping distance from the investigation by repeatedly deferring to the Justice Department.
“The Department of Justice is going to conduct these investigations free of any political interference, free of the White House telling them what to do or orchestrating anything,” White House senior adviser Anita Dunn said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Thursday.
Attorney General Merrick Garland addressed the search for the first time on Thursday, announcing that the Justice Department had asked a court to unseal the warrant authorizing the search of Trump’s Florida residence and to reveal what was collected — so long as Trump agrees to make that information public.
Biden, who is in South Carolina on a family vacation, has not yet publicly commented on the developments, and White House officials said he had no knowledge the search would take place. A White House official also said they had no knowledge Garland would make a surprise announcement Thursday ahead of time.
“They’re not saying anything now because, one, it wouldn’t be appropriate and, two, I don’t know there’s anything they could say,” said Steve Cash, a national security lawyer and former counsel for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Meanwhile, the White House is preparing to embark on a new push to promote Biden’s accomplishments, namely a signature piece of legislation to lower prescription drug costs and address climate change that is expected to pass the House on Friday. The passage of the legislation would be far and away the biggest news of the week — if not for the revelations about the Mar-a-Lago search.
“Taking a step back, the White House has had an incredible recent run,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “Unfortunately they’re running up against this other narrative and they can’t do much about it. Unlike the last administration, they’re not going to get involved in an ongoing investigation, and that’s the right call.”
A senior White House official told reporters on Thursday that Biden hasn’t shied away from calling out “threats” posed by Trump and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection but made clear the administration’s focus would be on highlighting policies that address Americans’ concerns about economic conditions and other everyday issues.
Biden has mostly avoided discussing Trump during his tenure and rarely refers to him by name. But that shifted somewhat in recent weeks, as Biden proactively jabbed Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 riot and appeared to relish the idea of a 2024 rematch with the former president as the House committee investigating the riot held a series of public hearings on the matter.
As with the specific revelations of the congressional probe into the Jan. 6 attack, Biden has taken pains to avoid discussing any Trump-related Justice Department investigations.
Some say Biden shouldn’t shrink from the issue.
Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha, who served as a senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during his 2020 presidential campaign, said Biden should come at Trump strongly.
“He should say the FBI is an independent organization and that’s what it should always be and nobody is above the law, including a former president of the United States,” Rocha said.
Republican strategist Susan Del Percio, who served as an adviser to the Lincoln Project and supported Biden during the presidential race, said Biden is handling Trump as he should.
“There’s nothing he can do now to put it in Trump’s face. It’s already there,” Del Percio said. “He’s not one who will start belittling someone for support. That’s what Donald Trump does.”
“Let Donald Trump say, ‘it’s Biden. It’s Biden,’ she said. “The way stuff is going, he’s not going to know which fire to put out first.”
But Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau acknowledged that Democrats might be losing the narrative to date.
“From a communications war, are we losing the framing war on day three? Yes,” he said. “But ultimately I think the narrative will shift.”
Officials have signaled that any information about the Trump probe will come from the Justice Department, which normally does not comment publicly on ongoing investigations.
Garland defended the Justice Department and FBI against “unfounded attacks” during a rare press conference Thursday, declaring that he would “not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked.”
Manley credited Garland with holding the press conference, saying he “owned the investigation.”
“That’s the right way to go,” Manley said. “As someone who has maybe taken too pessimistic of a view of Democrats’ chances in recent months, it’s too bad the administration is enjoying all these successes when Trump is getting in more and more trouble but there’s nothing they can do about it. That’s politics.”