Former U.S. President Trump appears on classified document charges after a federal indictment at Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. United States Courthouse, alongside his aide Walt Nauta and attorneys Chris Kise and Todd Blanche in Miami, Florida, U.S., June 13, 2023 in a courtroom sketch.   REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg
Hear how Trump acted inside the 'packed courtroom' during arraignment
02:00 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

At the very moment former President Donald Trump was pulling into an underground garage at the federal courthouse in Miami, his successor was 40 minutes into a meeting about Ukraine’s nascent counteroffensive with NATO’s secretary general.

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.

Biden’s advisers are all on the same page that any comment about the case risks providing Trump with grist to fuel his claims of political persecution. And Biden has told team members that Trump’s own interference in Justice Department matters is a reason he ran for president in the first place.

Close allies of the White House have adopted a similar stance, and Biden’s team has sent the implicit message that anyone associated with the president should avoid saying anything that might link him to the case, according to people familiar with the matter.

The one exception came Monday, when first lady Dr. Jill Biden went further than any White House official had gone when she commented on the situation during a fundraiser in New York City.

“My heart feels so broken by a lot of the headlines that we see on the news,” she said during the off-camera event, according to comments reported by the Associated Press and confirmed to CNN by someone in attendance. “Like I just saw, when I was on my plane, it said 61% of Republicans are going to vote, they would vote for Trump.”

“They don’t care about the indictment. So that’s a little shocking, I think,” she went on.

On Tuesday in California, the first lady stepped up her criticism of Trump at another fundraiser, framing the election as between the president’s stability and Trump’s “corruption and chaos.”

“You know what’s in store if these MAGA Republicans win. We know it because we lived it,” she said. “Remember how hard it was last time? This time, it’s going to be even harder.”

“The fight for freedom doesn’t end. This is the most important election of our lives,” she added.

Biden’s campaign has been mute on the subject, wary of any glint of politicization that could lend credence to Trump’s claim that Biden is influencing the investigation. His campaign has not only declined to comment on the matter, but neither the Democratic National Committee nor Biden’s campaign have sought to fundraise off the indictment.

Typically, such a detailed and damning indictment against a presidential candidate’s most likely general election opponent would be viewed as a political gold mine – reminding the president’s supporters of the stakes of the election and driving donations to his campaign.

Some Biden advisers privately say they would love to speak out on the indictment, believing the findings only highlight the former president’s continued risk to the country.

Yet Biden’s political aides have instead determined that the risks of commenting outweigh the rewards, believing that seizing on Trump’s indictment for political gain would only fuel Republican efforts to cast the indictment as politically motivated, rather than the action of an independent Justice Department.

Even in private, Biden’s aides are loathe to comment too directly on the allegations against the former president, wary at how it may be interpreted and ultimately used to vindicate Trump’s grievances.

One factor complicating Biden’s approach: The separate special counsel investigation into his own handling of classified documents. The cases vary widely, and people familiar with the matter said the probe into Biden appears far from conclusion.

Biden’s reelection strategy, in many ways, boils down to a choice they have framed to supporters as chaos versus stability – and the second of potentially four indictments coming this year, illustrated with photos of a visibly messy approach to national security documents and reinforced by Trump’s ranting comments, is the kind of chaos they want to contrast against the consistency of Biden’s avoidance of any public comment.

In top Democratic circles, the sense is that the indictment – and the aftermath – is damning enough on its own: Any attempts to embellish or spin would be extraneous at best, counterproductive at worst. There haven’t been many coordinating phone calls or meetings with Biden aides because there hasn’t been much to coordinate.

“The Trump indictment and the facts that will continue to emerge from the legal process speak for themselves,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic leader, told CNN in an interview in his Capitol office on Monday.

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.

Some on Biden’s team also foresee Trump quickly seizing on any comments by Biden for his own fundraising purposes, another reason for the president to maintain his silence.

Biden’s campaign may not need to publicly message or fundraise off of Trump’s alleged criminal conduct to reap some political benefits. News of Trump’s conduct and his response to it is blanketing the airwaves, serving as a potent reminder to voters of the chaos they voted out of office in favor of the Biden’s perceived steady hand.

Aides know Biden’s dutiful, there-and-back stops at community colleges, union halls and construction sites aren’t likely to generate the same level of headlines as those about Trump’s legal peril.

Yet perhaps more than the accomplishments themselves, Biden is hoping to project an air of competence and authority as a contrast to the chaos that has accompanied Trump for years. The boring-by-comparison, in his advisers’ view, will come to benefit him in the end.

“Regardless of who the president is, it’s always appropriate for the White House to resist or not to comment on ongoing legal matters, and particularly given that we are in such a historic uncharted moment of our nation’s history, it’s all the more important and appropriate that the White House is being diligent in not commenting,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist and CNN commentator. “There is nothing to be gained by weighing in, and in service to our highest standards of justice and equal treatment under the law, it’s all the more imperative.”

In the past, some inside the White House – including Biden himself – have voiced private frustrations at Attorney General Merrick Garland’s deliberative pace in carrying out investigations into Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. There is nothing to indicate anyone inside the White House ever made those views known to Garland directly.

On Thursday, there was no heads up from Garland to Biden’s top team that an indictment was coming down, according to officials, leaving the West Wing to learn of it from watching the news. Biden told reporters he hadn’t spoken to Garland on the matter.

Biden appeared ready when he was questioned at close range about the indictment while touring Nash Community College in North Carolina: “I have no comment,” he said before watching a student operate a yellow robotic arm.

Later, when the indictment itself was unsealed, Biden was standing on stage attempting to promote his job training agenda against a backdrop of beige machinery and hoses. He learned of the unsealing after wrapping up his remarks.

Aides said he caught some coverage of the indictment on television throughout the day. But much of his Friday was consumed with meeting military families, including for more than an hour in private before returning to Washington.

And as Air Force One was returning from North Carolina late Friday, aides had turned the channel from news – where Trump’s indictment was omnipresent – to the Golf Channel.

CNN’s Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.