WASHINGTON (AP) — The searing images once again claimed center stage: a mob storming the U.S. Capitol, Trump flags held aloft as violent rioters fought with police and targeted lawmakers.
But as the traumatic video footage from Jan. 6 grips viewers of the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, there is one place where, publicly, the trial is being studiously ignored: the White House.
President Joe Biden stressed to reporters in advance that he would not be watching the proceedings and his team’s message is clear: Their focus is on the business of governing and not the historic events unfolding at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has dodged question after question about the trial, declining to offer Biden’s opinion on the proceedings. And Biden’s calendar this week is meant as counterprogramming to the trial: events focused on getting aid to those suffering amid the COVID-19 pandemic and bolstering vaccine distribution to control the virus.
The message discipline reflects both the political and practical realities of the moment for the president.
Privately, White House aides note that the president would gain little politically from weighing in on the trial and that any comment he makes would draw the focus away from his predecessor’s misconduct and onto Biden’s own views.
And they say that, on a practical level, staying above the fray allows Biden to focus on his COVID-19 relief package and remain on cordial terms with Republicans as he tries to steer the $1.9 trillion bill through Congress.
“Presidents have their peak political capital immediately after they’re elected, and they need to decide what to spend it on. Containing COVID is President Biden’s No. 1 priority, so I don’t think it’s a surprise that that’s where the focus has been and will remain until that package has passed,” said former Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt.
LaBolt also noted that if Democrats’ ultimate goal is to win GOP support for indicting the president, it’s unlikely that “having President Biden out there continuing to make statements about impeachment would serve that effort.”
Among some Biden aides, there is a sense that the president will need to weigh in at the end of the trial, particularly if an expected acquittal prompts Trump to break his silence and further inflame a deeply divided nation.
For now, however, the White House’s public approach to the proceedings has been: Impeachment? What impeachment?