Democrats Push Biden to Make Trump’s Felonies a Top 2024 Issue


WASHINGTON — Now that former President Donald Trump is a convicted criminal, the Democratic Party finds itself wrestling with a choice that will help define this year’s presidential race: Should it try to push his felonies to the center of the election?

The route Democrats take may determine not only President Joe Biden’s fortunes but also, they say, the future of American democracy. Widely believing a vengeful Trump poses a grave threat to the nation, Democrats at all levels of the party are simultaneously thrilled to see him found guilty and fearful that he has a supernatural ability to survive even this political peril.

Post-verdict interviews with more than 50 Democrats — including current and former members of Congress, statewide elected officials, veteran strategists, Democratic National Committee members and local officials — revealed a party hungry to tell voters that Trump’s conviction makes him unfit and worried that Biden might not use the bully pulpit of the presidency to press that argument.

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“I do think it is the obligation of every Democrat to remind every voter that Donald Trump is now a convicted felon and just how unprecedented this is,” said former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, a Democrat who ran for the presidential nomination against Biden in 2020.

Even as Democrats broadly push Biden to capitalize on Trump’s felonies, there is a spectrum of opinion on just how much to focus on them.

Biden himself has deployed a two-pronged strategy, speaking carefully about Trump’s legal problems even as his campaign grows more aggressive: On Friday evening, it fired off a statement that referred, for the first time, to “Convicted Felon Donald Trump.”

But Biden, trying to avoid fueling false claims that he is orchestrating Trump’s criminal cases, took a restrained tone as he addressed the conviction at the White House on Friday. He said the verdict demonstrated the strength of the American judicial system and stressed that he had nothing to do with the prosecution, as Trump has argued without merit.

“This jury was chosen the same way every jury in America has been chosen,” Biden said. “It was a process that Donald Trump’s attorney was part of. The jury heard five weeks of evidence — five weeks — and after careful deliberation, the jury reached a unanimous verdict.”

Fellow Democrats were much less cautious, and happy to say what Biden did not.

“That Trump paid hush money to a porn star and jurors found he falsified business records to cover it up is just one short, tawdry chapter of a much bigger story: Trump is an aspiring tyrant who intends to rule, not lead, the United States,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga.

The ramifications of Trump’s conviction for the 2024 campaign remain unknown. But Democrats hope it will break through to voters who long ago tuned out a dispiriting campaign between two unpopular candidates.

“I think it’s the contrast — the man of lies and chaos versus the guy who is trying to make this country work for everyone,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Although pre-verdict polling was inconsistent and was based on a hypothetical outcome, a survey in early May from the Democratic firm Navigator suggested the conviction could alter views of Trump. In that poll, 47% of registered voters surveyed — including 46% of independents and 35% of Democrats — predicted that Trump would not be convicted in New York court. Those numbers hint that plenty of Americans were caught by surprise.

“That Donald Trump magic has been that he has been able to evade everything,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. and the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I did wonder myself if they would split the baby and not convict him on everything.”

The Biden campaign’s internal polling suggests the conviction will resonate more strongly with voters who are not yet paying close attention to the election, especially younger people and those without college degrees — two groups Biden needs to reach. But for many voters, the importance of the trial pales in comparison to issues like the economy and immigration.

Biden’s comments Friday about the conviction indicated that he plans to stick with his strategy: Leave the most biting attacks on Trump’s legal troubles to allies and outside groups while emphasizing the rule of law. Campaign aides say abortion rights, democracy and the economy will remain the central focus of the president’s reelection message. In his remarks, Biden leaned heavily on the idea that the jury had weighed all the evidence and reached a verdict appropriately in the time-honored tradition of U.S. law.

James Carville, a Democratic strategist who worked for Bill Clinton, said Biden should strike a patriotic tone rather than a partisan one.

“The jury, the jury, the jury — for God’s sakes, hide under the dress of the jury,” Carville said. “And you don’t need to say much more than that.”

Biden seems to be thinking the same way. On his campaign account Friday, he posted simply, “No one is above the law.”

Other Democrats energetically highlighted Trump’s felon status and tried to tar his Republican allies by association. House Majority PAC, the super political action committee that backs Democratic House candidates, blasted out news releases Friday declaring that a host of Republican incumbents who had defended Trump “support crime.”

“If you can’t see through Trump now, you’re blind,” said William Shaheen, a Democratic National Committee member from New Hampshire who is a former state judge and is married to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat. “He’d be doing jail time if I was the judge.”

The biggest question for Democrats now is what Trump’s conviction means for the 2024 campaign. He has led Biden in polls of battleground states for months, and party officials have described focus groups of voters as being very sour on the economy and the president. The verdict presented a rare moment of optimism, with Democrats saying in interviews that they had begun to feel more hopeful about Biden’s chances.

“The biggest thing I’m seeing is significant remobilization of an anti-Trump movement in America,” said Faiz Shakir, the manager of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. “There’s no doubt it has reinfused energy at this moment.”

Democratic National Committee members, many of whom have spent months fretting about Biden’s droopy poll numbers, had a host of advice for Biden.

William Owen of Tennessee suggested that the campaign should begin advertising on Christian media outlets in battleground states to reach parishioners who he believes would find the conviction against their values. John Verdejo of North Carolina said Biden “should not take the high road.” Larry Cohen of Maryland, who leads the progressive group Our Revolution, said Biden should “pivot from the conviction to the issue of billionaires like Trump using their economic power to build political power.”

Even though Democrats have had a long series of electoral victories since Trump rose to the White House, it is not hard to find those in the party who retain a bit of post-traumatic stress from his 2016 ascent.

Julián Castro, the former housing secretary who emerged last year as an intraparty Biden skeptic, said Friday that he was more confident the president would win reelection after Trump’s conviction — but he remained a bit skittish.

“I’d be lying if I said that this alone is the thing that makes me think now I’m sure that Donald Trump is going to lose in November,” Castro said. “Trump has been tied or slightly ahead in these battleground states. To me and to a lot of people, that is very worrisome.”

Democrats in battleground states said their experience with the kinds of disengaged voters who often decide close races suggested that the Biden campaign and its allies had a lot of work to do to change people’s minds based on the Trump conviction.

“The idea that all politicians are corrupt is pretty prevalent among infrequent voters,” said Danielle Johnson, a Democrat running for a state Assembly seat in western Wisconsin. “It is not easy to paint a picture that this is a clear good guy-bad guy situation.”

After celebrating Thursday, Democrats faced the reality of a fired-up Republican Party. Trump’s campaign said Friday evening that he had raised nearly $53 million in the 24 hours after the jury’s verdict.

Soon, the Biden campaign had sent fundraising appeals from Gov. Gavin Newsom of California (“I don’t need to tell you about Donald Trump’s conviction yesterday”) and actor Mark Hamill (“You may know me from my role as Luke in ‘Star Wars’”). The Biden campaign declined to disclose its fundraising totals from the verdict’s aftermath.

And yet no matter how downbeat Democrats feel about Biden’s standing in polls or his ability to inspire voters, they will for the next 22 weeks have Trump, convicted felon, as their general-election opponent. That is enough to put wind in their sails, at least for now.

“I’ve always believed this is a very tough election that will be very close because Trump is such a convincing carnival barker,” said Jim Roosevelt, a longtime Democratic National Committee member from Massachusetts. “I was at a 47% confidence level before, and I’m at 51% now.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company



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