Outside the Oval Office windows, the soundcheck for an evening Juneteenth concert could be heard drifting over from the South Lawn. The screen of the small television behind President Joe Biden’s desk was turned off.
As history was underway in South Florida, the response at the White House was intentionally muted. A day earlier, some aides professed to not even know when Trump’s arraignment was scheduled.
Biden aides have long prepared for the possibility of Trump being charged in the special counsel’s probe into the former president’s retention of classified documents. After Biden was informed of the indictment by members of his senior team on Thursday evening, there was little question what the strategy would be: Continue to say nothing publicly about the matter while allowing the contrast afforded by a president focused on his public duties to play out.
Biden himself appears to want little to do with Trump’s predicament. While Trump was being arraigned, he was meeting Uruguay’s president behind closed doors.
A few hours later, recalling his lengthy meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping to a group of American ambassadors, he seemed to swiftly recognize a joke that might be misconstrued.
“I turned all my notes in,” he said, adding quickly: “But that’s not a reference to the former president.”
Asked as he left for a comment on his predecessor’s arrest, the president shouted “No!” as he walked away.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been questioned about the bombshell indictment – he’d already refused to comment at least four times previously – and he and his team recognize it probably won’t be the last.
Saying nothing, Biden’s aides acknowledge, will test a notoriously unreserved president as the legal saga persists for months, if not longer. But if there is one topic on which they believe he can maintain a degree of message discipline, it is not wading into ongoing legal matters – this one in particular.
With Biden aides continuing to see Trump as their most likely Republican opponent next year, top Democratic operatives have been clocking the Republican response, both in supportive quotes and in all the officials who have avoided saying anything at all.
Taken together with polls that have shown Trump’s support rising among primary voters in the days since the indictment, they believe the situation shows what a strong hold Trump and Trumpism continue to have on the GOP, which they are counting on to be a huge weight on Republican chances in 2024.