President Joe Biden on condemned Donald Trump’s unfounded assertions of a biased legal system as “reckless” and “dangerous” on May 31.

The unprecedented statements broke his long-held silence on the presumptive Republican nominee’s criminal woes, as Trump’s nearly three dozen felony convictions injected a new element of uncertainty into a volatile presidential campaign.

President Biden’s sober denunciation of his predecessor and his defense of the U.S. legal system — delivered in just under two minutes from the White House — came after campaign aides made clear they would continue to focus on issues such as democracy, abortion rights and other freedoms that have formed the foundation of the president’s reelection bid.

He noted the dozen jurors who found Trump guilty of all 34 counts, stemming falsifying business records in order to illegally influence the 2016 election, were selected “the same way every jury in America’s chosen” and that the former president had “every opportunity to defend himself.”

As President Biden underscored Trump’s right to appeal, he emphasized that “the American principle that no one is above the law was reaffirmed.”

“It’s reckless, it’s dangerous, it’s irresponsible for anyone to say this was rigged just because they don’t like the verdict. Our justice system has endured for nearly 250 years, and it literally is the cornerstone of America,” President Biden said, adding of the U.S. legal system: “We should never allow anyone to tear it down.”

It was a significant shift in tone for President Biden, who had long steered clear of Trump’s legal drama in order not to fan accusations that the prosecutions were politically motivated. But as the New York proceedings dragged on, Biden campaign aides increasingly dipped their toes into Trump’s legal drama — releasing statements alluding to the trial, taunting Trump with the phrase “free on Wednesdays,” the trial’s scheduled day off.

Biden campaign officials, while still not telegraphing a major strategy change to focus squarely on Trump’s convictions, said the verdict fits into their broader narrative about Trump: that he does not care about ordinary Americans and for Trump, it was all about himself.

Other Democrats said Trump’s convictions — stemming from a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election through a hush money payment to an adult film actor — bolstered other arguments that President Biden and the party were making against the presumptive GOP nominee.

“I believe Trump’s conviction for election interference-related crimes fits very nicely into the story that the president wants to tell about how Trump is a danger to democracy,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who served as communications director in the Obama White House.

Biden campaign officials acknowledged that Trump is a largely known entity and that much of the public’s opinions about him are settled. But they said the convictions could be a significant moment — such as Trump’s first impeachment in 2019 or his role encouraging the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection — that would break through to a larger audience.

The criminal felony convictions could also accelerate what the Biden campaign has struggled to crystallize to voters: the chaos that constantly surrounds Trump but has been largely forgotten by the public.

The campaign hopes the convictions could influence two groups of voters in particular, according to one Biden campaign official.

One includes Republicans who disdain Trump and likely supported someone like former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in the primaries, but nonetheless would find it difficult to vote for a Democrat. The thinking is that the convictions would bring into focus why they oppose Trump to begin with, the official said.

The other group is the voters who have not paid attention to the campaign so far but could be reminded of Trump’s liabilities through the convictions. The official was granted anonymity to discuss internal campaign thinking.

But few professed to know what the political impact of Trump’s convictions would be — including President Biden himself.

“I have no idea,” the president said when asked whether the conviction would help his presumptive opponent.

The Biden campaign fired off a handful of emails after the verdict came in on May 30, including one signed by the president himself that implored supporters: “The stakes have never been higher — democracy, personal rights and freedoms, and the future of our economy are all on the line.”

The message reminded the public that despite the verdict, defeating Trump had to be done electorally and not anywhere else. That message was echoed in the talking points the Biden campaign sent to surrogates. It stressed: “Convicted felon or not, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president.”

The talking points continued: “Here’s the choice: Joe Biden is fighting for our freedom and democracy, lowering costs for families, creating more opportunity for everyone. Donald Trump grows more unhinged and dangerous by the day as he continues his campaign of revenge and retribution — running to serve himself with no care for who he hurts in the process.”

“The only way to defeat Trump is at the ballot box, and the campaign will have to continue to hammer that to voters who don’t want Trump to be president again,” said Kate Berner, former White House principal deputy communications director, who also worked on Biden’s 2020 campaign. “This is another negative for Trump to overcome, but the issues that matter most to voters are the ones that impact their lives, not Trump’s.

Still others were pushing the Biden campaign to more aggressively seize on Trump’s criminal record.

“I think they need to lean in here,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of the liberal advocacy group MoveOn. “The American people need to understand that a Republican candidate is running for president who is a convicted felon. I think that is perfectly fair game and it matters to voters.”

None of the developments changed Trump’s defiant tone as he looked to galvanize supporters ahead of November. Moments after President Biden spoke, Trump sent a fundraising email declaring in all capital letter, “I was just convicted in a rigged trial. I am a political prisoner!”

As President Biden left the podium after his remarks, a reporter shouted if he had any reaction to Trump calling himself a political prisoner and blaming the president directly. President Biden stopped and flashed a grin, but did not answer.

Earlier in his address, President Biden had stressed that the Manhattan trial was a “state case, not a federal case,” countering Trump’s baseless claims that President Biden himself was somehow behind the New York convictions.

Seung Min Kim, Will Weissert, and MI Staff

Associated Press


Evan Vucci (AP)