As lawmakers, presidential candidates and advocacy groups flooded in-boxes and social media platforms with statements responding to the Manhattan grand jury’s indictment of former President Donald Trump, there was one notable – and intentional – omission.
There was no statement from President Joe Biden.
The man who defeated Trump in the 2020 election – and may very well face him again in 2024 – had no plans to engage in an ongoing legal matter.
No comment came from the White House and there is little evidence that public posture will change any time soon, even as officials acknowledge they will be closely monitoring any security issues that may develop.
“He’s the president, not a legal analyst,” one Democrat in regular contact with the White House said. “He has an administration to run.”
Biden’s presidency has, from its first day, been shaped by extraordinary moments in US history: The aftermath of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol; a twice-impeached, once-defeated, still omnipresent former president who attempted to overturn a presidential election; a once-in-a-century pandemic; and the largest land war in Europe in 80 years.
It’s a reality Biden hasn’t attempted to dodge or escape. A campaign and presidency explicitly centered on what he calls the “battle for the soul of a nation” and a moment when the world “stands at an inflection point” hardly represents an effort to downplay the stakes.
Yet Biden’s initial silence in the wake of Trump’s indictment isn’t a surprise. While officials inside the West Wing were as surprised as the rest of the country by the news, there was no scramble to prepare anything to release publicly.
Instead, Biden faces a convergence of two clear, if unofficial, animating principles of his first two years in office: don’t engage in ongoing legal cases and don’t get distracted by issues that don’t have a tangible effect on Americans.
The approach is designed, at least in part, to keep the administration’s focus on its priorities and agenda. But the unmistakably clear contrast it creates with Biden’s predecessor is neither subtle nor unintentional as a political message.
For Biden, who pledged to bring down the political pressure that threatened to fracture the country under Trump’s watch, it’s a strategy that will now be tested by a new front in the partisan warfare that has animated Trump’s campaigns and presidency.
If there’s anything that would draw a proactive response from Biden, one official said in the days before the indictment, it would be concern about violence in its aftermath. But officials maintain there have still been no briefings or warnings that suggest the threat of violence is imminent, despite Trump’s social media posts over the last two weeks.
“We’re constantly monitoring this – as you would think we should, particularly in the wake of what happened on January 6,” John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, told reporters last week.
Federal officials are in regular contact with their state and local counterparts, Kirby noted at the time, and has reiterated several times in the days since, that there had been no indications of any imminent threats or violence.
That Trump’s calls for protests and warning of “death and destruction” didn’t drive any major response from his supporters brought some relief inside the West Wing, officials said.
Yet several also made clear the looming indictment simply wasn’t a day-to-day focus at all – something there are no plans to change.
Biden will travel to Mississippi on Friday morning to survey the aftermath of catastrophic storm damage as planned. Next week, he and his top Cabinet officials will continue their carefully planned, weekslong travel blitz to highlight his sweeping legislative wins of the first two year.
While Biden still hasn’t communicated to his advisers whether he will run for reelection, behind-the-scenes advisers say the planning and build-out of the campaign they all expect to launch continues unabated.
In the days after Trump declared without evidence that he expected to be indicted last week, Biden’s advisers declined to gauge its effect on any political race given the early stage of the 2024 campaign.
In the White House briefing room over that same period, Biden press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre batted away questions about the possibility with some iteration of the same refusal to weigh in on an ongoing investigation.
When the news broke on Thursday night, officials inside the West Wing said privately they were as surprised as the rest of the country.
A day that will now be marked for history, at least inside the White House, was one where Trump was hardly mentioned in the hours before his indictment.
Biden’s national security team was engaged in urgent and intensive efforts to obtain information about Russia’s detention of a Wall Street Journal reporter on espionage charges rejected by the news organization and the White House.
Biden’s economic team pressed forward on proposals sent to federal regulators to tighten bank rules in the wake of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.
A group of House Democrats met behind closed doors with senior White House officials to discuss the implementation of Biden’s legislative accomplishments.
The push on new gun restrictions in the wake of a Nashville mass shooting that killed six, including three children, continued, all as policy and legal teams scrambled to review and navigate a federal judge’s decision to strike down a key plank of the Affordable Care Act.
Biden was briefed by his national security team in the morning on the detained reporter and later met in the Oval Office with Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills player who nearly died on the football field in a game last season.
Officials declined to provide a window into how Biden heard of the indictment news, or what he was doing in the hours after. It was already clear there would be no opportunity for reporters to ask him directly.
The White House had issued a “lid” – the notice to reporters there would be nothing more from Biden on Thursday – more than an hour before the news broke.