As his predecessor is tried in the US Capitol this week for inciting a deadly riot, President Joe Biden will work to keep his first-100-days agenda on track from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
He’ll virtually tour a vaccination center as the impeachment briefs are filed on Monday. He will pay his first visit to the Pentagon when the trial is underway. He’s due at the National Institutes of Health later in the week. And he’ll work the phones to garner support for his sweeping Covid-19 relief plan among mayors and governors — a tacit recognition that Republican support in the preoccupied Senate may be increasingly elusive.
What he won’t be doing, according to one official: watching much of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on television. Unlike Trump himself, who spent hours watching his first impeachment trial from a flat-screen television in the presidential dining room, Biden has meetings and trips around Washington scheduled during the proceedings. And, officials have said, he’s not much of a TV-watcher.
“The President himself would tell you that we keep him pretty busy, and he has a full schedule this week,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday, adding: “I think it’s clear from the schedule and from his intention he will not spend too much time watching the proceeding, if any time.”
Confronting Trump’s role in the insurrection attempt last month was always set to consume at least part of Biden’s opening days. With an acquittal all but certain, White House officials hope the trial moves quickly and doesn’t distract from the urgent imperative of combating the coronavirus pandemic or confirming Biden’s Cabinet nominees.
In the meantime, Biden will proceed as normal — or as normal as can be for a president whose predecessor is on trial for inciting a riot in the hopes of clinging to power.
“His focus will be on getting the pandemic under control, engaging with civil servants who are at the heart and soul of government and engaging with a range of leaders to get the bill passed,” a White House official said.
In a brief exchange with reporters Monday morning after returning to the White House from a weekend in Delaware, Biden again deferred to the Senate when asked about Trump’s political fate.
“Look, he got an offer to come testify. He decided not to. We will let the Senate work it out,” Biden said before jogging into the Oval Office, where he was due for a mid-morning intelligence briefing alongside Vice President Kamala Harris.
Covid-19 relief plan vs. impeachment
Biden has never had much of an appetite for a second impeachment trial, particularly one that interrupts the confirmation of his Cabinet nominees and delays the passage of his Covid-19 relief bill. But advisers say he reached the calculation weeks ago that trying to coax Democrats in the House away from impeaching Trump would not only be unsuccessful, it could also do something even more detrimental to his agenda: dividing his party.
“Trump is still the best thing for unifying Democrats,” a senior adviser to Biden said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations. “We can’t get beyond this without having the Senate trial.”
With the House on recess for the next two weeks, Biden is trying to keep momentum alive for his $1.9 trillion economic package. He will continue to sell the plan, focusing on mayors and governors and business leaders, even as the Senate is conducting a trial.
The White House has worked closely with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on the scheduling of the impeachment proceedings, urging him to keep things moving along as swiftly as possible. Still, the trial is all but certain to stretch into next week after one of Trump’s lawyers asked for a halt to proceedings to observe the Sabbath on Friday evening and Saturday.
Advisers acknowledge the next two weeks in the nation’s capital will almost certainly be dominated once again by Trump, but they believe outside Washington there will be an opening for the President and vice president to make their case on the need for the relief legislation.
For his part, advisers say, Biden has no intention to offer his assessment of whether Trump should be convicted. The President does not see it as necessary or productive to offer his personal view, fearing it could even further complicate his quest for unity.
“Look, I ran like hell to defeat him because I thought he was unfit to be president,” Biden told CBS News in his interview that aired before the Super Bowl. “I’m not in the Senate now. I’ll let the Senate make that decision.”
For some of Biden’s aides, it is not an unfamiliar sensation to have their boss crowded out by Trump. The underlying dynamic of last year’s presidential campaign was largely one of Trump hogging attention through his politically damaging behavior while Biden proceeded with pandemic-altered events, content to largely cede the spotlight to his rival’s self-destruction.
Now, however, the fate of Biden’s debut legislative achievement and the underpinnings of his presidential agenda rest on not allowing Trump to distract from his work in office.
The impeachment trial, which will begin in earnest on Tuesday, interrupts what had been a steady pace of announcements and executive actions, each set to a daily theme, that Biden unveiled during his first weeks in office. The calendar had been arranged since well before he was inaugurated.
Grounded from traveling because of the pandemic — except for his trip home to Wilmington — Biden will instead take a virtual tour on Monday afternoon of a vaccination site built inside State Farm Stadium in Arizona, which usually hosts the Arizona Cardinals and colelge football’s Fiesta Bowl.
He’s set to receive briefings at the Pentagon and NIH later in the week, likely during the hours the trial is underway. Federal health officials also planned to brief reporters and the White House proceeded ahead with its daily briefings, a signal that the impeachment trial would not impede business as usual.
AssSenators prepared to act as jurors in the impeachment trial, the other side of the Capitol was moving ahead with Covid-19 relief. House committees were marking up the legislation during sessions this week, aiming to finalize their legislative text by Friday.
The goal is for all the panels to pass their portions and send it to the Budget Committee by February 16, where the larger bill can be packaged together, passed and put on the floor the following week. Biden hopes for the bill to pass by mid-March, when federal unemployment benefits expire. Any delay caused by the impeachment trial could complicate the timeline, though officials have long insisted the Senate is capable of doing both at once.
“The Senate’s going to do all three things next week. We’re going to do our constitutional responsibility and hold a trial. It won’t last very long. We are going to move forward nominees and we are going to continue to push forward Covid relief legislation. The Senate can do all of those things, and we will,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
A multi-day Senate impeachment trial has been a reality for the Biden administration since before it formally commenced, though the timing and parameters of the proceedings remained unclear in its earliest days.
White House officials had insisted it was up to the Senate to determine when the trial would take place, though Biden himself revealed off-the-cuff he would prefer some of his pressing business before the chamber be completed before it did.
“The more time we have to get up and running and meet these crises, the– the better,” he said two days after taking office.