Joe Biden ignores impeachment trial to focus on pandemic affairs

WASHINGTON — As former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial opened Tuesday, the White House press secretary made it clear in the briefing room — three times — that President Joe Biden had nothing to say about it.

“Joe Biden is the president. He’s not a pundit,” Jen Psaki told the 14 reporters seated before her. “He’s not going to opine on the back-and-forth arguments in the Senate, nor is he watching them.”

Biden echoed that assertion moments later as he sat in the Oval Office to discuss his top priority, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, with a group of business leaders. A day later when Psaki appeared in the briefing room, reporters pressed her about Biden’s refusal to comment on the “historic” events occurring in the Senate. One, seemingly incredulous, asked just how the public “should interpret his silence?”

Joe Biden ignores impeachment trial to focus on his priorities pandemic affairs

“The American public,” Psaki said, “should read it as his commitment on delivering on exactly what they elected him to do, which is not to be a commentator on the daily developments of an impeachment trial.”

After four years of Trump’s chaotic approach to leadership, Biden and his new administration have sought to make message discipline great again. However disorienting that may be for reporters accustomed to the media-focused, camera-hungry Trump opining daily on everything from trade wars to TV ratings, Biden’s determination to drive a narrow, focused message marks a return to a more traditional, time-honored way of operating.

“The new normal is the old normal,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN White House correspondent who served as director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University for 11 years.

“These guys are bending over backwards and doing triple somersaults to show that they’re disciplined and that they’re grownups and hard at work — to convey to the press but, more importantly, the public that the big shift is one from chaos and freelance communication reflecting chaos governance to discipline across the board, in message and policy,” Sesno added. “And it’s still the press’ responsibility to poke holes in that. That’s the way it normally works.”

Reminding reporters that Biden has already criticized Trump for his role in inciting on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Psaki on Wednesday cited several comments he made in the immediate aftermath. There was no other outward acknowledgment from the White House of the Senate trial, which has featured video clips of the mob storming the Capitol and forcing lawmakers to flee. The dramatic revelations and proceedings were carried live on the main cable news networks, overshadowing Biden’s afternoon remarks to military personnel at the Pentagon.

Inside the West Wing, however, there was some anxiety over the strategy. As senior staffers watched the trial on televisions adorning walls and desks, they exchanged several emails that one official described as a “gut check,” reassuring themselves that they were in “the right place” in ignoring the biggest news story in town. White House aides, the official said, have begun to think about how Biden might address the nation once the trial concludes but continue to believe he’s better off not weighing in during the trial.

During an Oval Office meeting with senators Thursday morning, Biden reiterated to reporters that he hadn’t watched the trial live because “I’m focused on my job.” He did admit having seen news coverage of the day’s searing videos of the Capitol siege, expressing hope that “some minds may be changed” by it.

As he did with a visit to the Pentagon, Biden’s infrastructure-focused meeting on Thursday was another effort to emphasize his “at work” message. He planned to put a little physical distance between himself and the trial by visiting a lab at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., in the afternoon.

Whatever the temptation might be, participating in this moment of national catharsis likely carries little political upside for the new president, tasked with leading the country out of a deep public health and economic crisis, said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster.

“Two months from now, Americans are going to be judging him on his COVID response and whether they have a stimulus check,” he said. “Being embroiled in the back-and-forth of Congress runs the risk of diluting their message. They’ve got to stay focused on the big picture, and they are.”

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