If Trump Is Convicted, How Will Biden’s Team Go on the Attack?

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Normally, seeing your presidential opponent convicted of a felony would be a cause for celebration.

But here we are in 2024. As President Biden’s campaign and its closest allies wait for a potential verdict in Donald J. Trump’s criminal case in New York, they have come to a collective decision that even a conviction should not alter their plan to frame the election around their North Star issues of abortion rights and democracy.

At the same time, many Democrats are aghast at the idea that Mr. Trump could become a felon and the Biden campaign would not do everything in its power to remind voters of that fact.

This tension will define the Democratic reaction if a Manhattan jury indeed convicts Mr. Trump in the coming days, an outcome that could land like a thunderbolt for the nation’s news media and political class. No American political figure of Mr. Trump’s stature has run for president after being convicted of a crime, and there is no precedent for how to respond or how it would affect the 2024 election. If Mr. Trump is indeed acquitted or there is a hung jury, of course, the entire Democratic Party will try to move on as quickly as possible, even as he crows about vindication.

On Tuesday, the Biden campaign flashed its hand, holding a news conference outside the Manhattan courthouse where Mr. Trump is standing trial that featured Robert De Niro and two former U.S. Capitol Police officers. After the news conference, Mr. De Niro veered far off the script the Biden campaign wrote for him by directly addressing the prospect of a Mr. Trump conviction.

“The fact is whether he’s acquitted, whether it’s hung jury, he is guilty — and we all know it,” Mr. DeNiro said. “I’ve never seen a guy get out of so many things, and we all know this. Everybody in the world knows this.”

Asked if he thought Mr. Trump should be in jail, Mr. De Niro replied: “I sure do. Absolutely.”

The Trump campaign was quick to accuse Mr. Biden of pulling a political stunt.

Mr. Biden may break his long silence about the trial once its outcome becomes clear, after restricting his comments to lightly trolling Mr. Trump for falling asleep in court and over other nonlegal matters. And if the jury does convict the former president, Mr. Biden’s campaign and its allies are likely to highlight their opponent’s new criminal record. The Biden campaign’s social media team, for instance, has had early discussions about whether to brand the presumptive Republican nominee as “convicted felon Donald Trump” in its posts.

But the Biden team sees little evidence that a guilty verdict would alter the course of the presidential race, and believes it is better to focus on the contrast between the two candidates on Mr. Biden’s strongest issues. It is also worried about playing into Mr. Trump’s baseless claims that a vengeful Mr. Biden orchestrated the criminal case.

“People shouldn’t wait for a conviction to play a role in this election, because nothing with Trump has ever followed conventional wisdom,” said Jim Messina, who ran President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and is a trusted outside adviser for Mr. Biden’s team.

The president’s campaign, Mr. Messina added, does not “need to highlight any upcoming criminal convictions when there are bigger issues that matter more to voters and directly impact their lives.”

The Biden campaign is hardly reluctant to attack Mr. Trump. Over the past week, it has escalated its monthslong rhetorical blitz and added a personal element. Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, called Mr. Trump “a known antisemite,” and a campaign ad narrated by Robert De Niro declared that Mr. Trump “snapped” after losing the 2020 election.

A Trump conviction would create a new avenue for attacks, but dedicating time and energy to them would carry strategic risk.

How much a conviction would change the way people view Mr. Trump remains the campaign’s $64,000 question. Public polling has been inconsistent, and in part because the country has never had a felon as a major party’s presidential nominee, there’s not much trust in the results.

Still, in a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, just 6 percent of would-be Trump voters said a conviction would make them less likely to vote for him in November. Among independents, 23 percent said they would be less likely to support him after a conviction.

A sizable number of Democrats think that if Mr. Trump is convicted, Mr. Biden’s allies should push that development to the center of the 2024 race, even as the campaign itself focuses on other issues.

“I mean, are we really going to elect a convicted criminal?” said Representative Robert Garcia of California. “It makes no sense to avoid that Donald Trump has been convicted. Why wouldn’t that be part of who he is and an important part of his campaign for president?”

The campaign announced on Tuesday that it would dispatch Harry Dunn and other former U.S. Capitol Police officers for a tour of battleground states beginning this week to highlight Mr. Trump’s actions leading up to the Jan. 6 riot — an effort to undermine democracy that the Biden team believes will help sway voters to the president’s side more than a guilty verdict in Manhattan.

The Biden team events, which the campaign said would be held with local law enforcement officials, are meant to highlight Mr. Trump’s penchant for fomenting political violence and what Democrats say is his broad disregard for the rule of law.

While the Biden campaign does not have immediate plans to highlight a Trump conviction in its battleground-state advertising, others are willing to do so.

The Lincoln Project, the center-right group known for trolling Mr. Trump with catchy ads, is planning advertising to air on digital platforms in Arizona and Wisconsin beginning the moment of a Trump conviction, according to Rick Wilson, one of the organization’s founders.

Mr. Wilson said his group, which has often deviated from post-2016 Democratic orthodoxy by unleashing searing personal attacks against Mr. Trump, had also targeted advertising to the cellphones of close Trump associates and to cable channels likely to be played at Mr. Trump’s clubs in Bedminster, N.J., and Palm Beach, Fla.

Biden aides believe the chief benefit of any conviction might be ancillary — offering a dose of reality to the legions of voters who still don’t believe or have not accepted that the election will be a contest between the current president and his predecessor.

In this school of thought, any reminder that Mr. Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee is good for Mr. Biden’s prospects. News coverage and social media reactions to a conviction would remind people that Mr. Biden is the choice against a felon, so his campaign would not have to carry the load.

“I don’t think anyone thinks it’s a magic bullet,” said Matt Bennett, a founder of the centrist think tank Third Way, which is helping the Democratic effort to re-elect Mr. Biden. “Everyone is mindful that there is a risk of blowback, but on the other hand, the fact that he is convicted of a serious crime is not going to go unremarked.”

Then there is the question of what Democrats do if Mr. Trump is acquitted or the jury fails to reach a verdict and a mistrial is declared. For the Biden campaign, life would go on, and it would continue to hammer Mr. Trump on abortion and democracy.

Mr. Trump’s plans are predictable.

While relatively quiet in public about his case because of a gag order imposed by the New York judge, Mr. Trump has a long history of making angry and vengeful attacks on enemies. He is likely to do so after this trial, no matter the outcome.

Mr. Trump will take anything but a conviction as a major victory, as he did when he was acquitted in his first impeachment. And he will aim to alter public opinion of the three pending cases against him.

And it would not be hard to find Democrats in a state of post-trial panic.

For years, Democrats have wanted to see Mr. Trump prosecuted and convicted. He also faces federal charges over his actions leading up to the Jan. 6 riot and his handling of classified documents, as well as state charges in Georgia over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election there.

But none of Mr. Trump’s three other criminal cases are likely to go to trial before November, leaving the Manhattan case as the only possible vehicle for him to be held responsible for alleged wrongdoing before he could win back the presidency and dismiss at least the two federal cases. Legal experts generally rate the Manhattan case as the least serious of the four.

Some Democrats, scarred from years of watching Mr. Trump survive moments that would have taken down any other politician, have urged caution in their messaging about a guilty verdict from Manhattan.

Kathleen Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said that the conviction of a former president would be a “somber” moment, and that Democrats should avoid sounding “gleeful” in trying to score political points.

“You need to be careful you don’t overreach,” she said.



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