President Joe Biden was planning to launch a campaign sometime in the period after his February 7 State of the Union address before word leaked about the documents found in his home – and that remains the plan, even as White House aides and his personal lawyers answer questions about who knew what when.
The plans haven’t changed, people familiar with the discussions say. The timeframe is the same.
The president and his close-knit inner circle of advisers – largely the same circle that was tight around him as he prepared to launch his 2020 campaign – are on public lockdown as they avoid saying anything to avoid tripping any legal issues. But, they still think that – barring some major and deeply damaging revelation – this will blow over in time.
In interviews with CNN, people around the president talk about the “DC elite” making “DC noise.” They argue that the attention to these documents may prove to be only the latest passing obsession, and that many of the questions they’re facing are from journalists and politicians who aren’t accepting that Biden is “honoring his promise to a T by upholding the rule of law and respecting DOJ’s process,” according to a Biden adviser.
By contrast, the adviser said, “It’s a matter of public record what Americans’ highest priority issues are – from polling, other research, and the most important poll: the midterms: The economy, cutting costs, fighting inflation, creating jobs, standing up for reproductive rights, fighting for gun reform,” adding that with Biden’s work and record, “the American people care a hell of a lot about all of that.”
Those around Biden with actual information aren’t laying their plans out to nervous donors or members of Congress, whom they know will turn around and talk publicly, and barely care about their complaints over being left out. They mock the political forecasters and the talk of “optics.” They keep private score of four years’ worth of critics whom they feel have fallen flat over and over and dismiss the idea that they’ve gotten so convinced by their own survival mythology that they always underplay whatever arises.
“Look back from shortly before the president launched his campaign to now, the accuracy rate of pundits’ negative predictions about him or his strategies is dismal,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates, stressing that that he and others are taking the investigation seriously, but not the political talk around it. “Our MO, by contrast, has aged well: Tune out the noise, do the work, deliver; and remember that the president knows the American people and they know him.”
Asked how anything related to the documents investigations factors into the 2024 political or timing thinking for the people actually doing the thinking about it, Bates said, “It doesn’t.”
Chip on the shoulder attitude
Aides mix bitter sarcasm and exhausted jadedness as they mock advice that has come at them so many times before.
A White House official cited “a very inexhaustive list of issues that pundits have overstated the political impact of, saying they would either cost us the midterms, doom our agenda, cost us the 2020 election or some combination,” including how Biden couldn’t run a Covid-19-safe 2020 campaign, how he didn’t respond strongly enough to the Supreme Court decision striking down federal abortion rights, and when the midterms were predicted to be a disaster for his party and his agenda.
They send around old articles and clips of prognostications about all the times Biden was going to go down. News articles, full of advice from “allies” who never talk to the president or anyone who does talk to the president, get passed around in internal West Wing emails and text chains.
In part out of deliberate contrast to the daily melodrama that was the Trump White House, but mostly because the small circle of Biden’s closest advisers have all known each other for decades, neither the 2020 campaign nor the first two years of the presidency have had any significant leaks or backstabbing.
They are aware they’ve annoyed younger aides – and even seen some depart – because everyone in the White House knows there is an impenetrable ceiling for anyone outside of the small circle, who will always have the final word with the president. Even the lawyer representing Biden in the documents matter, Bob Bauer, is the same top lawyer from the campaign and the husband of trusted adviser Anita Dunn. Dunn is coordinating the communications strategy within the West Wing and among leaders on Capitol Hill while Bauer’s putting out the legal statements about what’s been discovered.
The people involved often delight in how frustrating their approach is to the contemporary political news cycle in Washington, smiling slyly at complaints and chuckling at people who tell them that they’re boring or complaints about their refusal to engage in questions about the process of how they came to their decisions.
“From the very beginning when he was running, you could see this resolve and calm consistency – even when things looked bad, he continued to press on,” said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, the Delaware Democrat who has known Biden for most of her life and supported him from the beginning of his campaign.
Rochester said that the last time she spoke to Biden was when he called to check in at one point during the week-long balloting for House speaker. She didn’t ask him directly if he was running for reelection, but told him, “I’m there if you need me.”
“I hear you, kiddo,” she said Biden told her.
To anyone who thinks his plans might be thrown off, she said, “I would say, ‘You might not know Joe Biden.’”
Deliberate battles with Washington wisdom
No president ever has come in with more years and experience in the nation’s capital, but Biden continues not to do the standard Washington performative apologies in hastily arranged marquee interviews or push aides to take the fall for the sake of feeding a “reset” narrative.
White House aides see Biden’s nadir so far as August 2021, as just about everyone in the military and political establishment hammered him for how he ended the war in Afghanistan and footage of desperate people falling from the wheels of military planes went viral. They also point out that Biden neither backed down nor listened to the many calls for him to at least fire national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
When his legislative agenda fell apart – and then fell apart more in the fall and winter of 2021 – Biden never fully gave up on the bills, and he never dismissed White House chief of staff Ron Klain, even as top supporters in Congress like then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed their misgivings.
Both Sullivan and Klain are still in their jobs more than a year later. So is Steve Ricchetti, the top adviser to the president who was the vice presidential chief of staff at the end of the Obama administration, when any stray documents should have been accounted for. Ricchetti walked with Biden to Marine One at the end of last week to fly back to Delaware with him, where the president spent the weekend at the house where some of the documents were found.
Biden and his aides are treading carefully as the special counsel’s investigation gets started, arguing that – as frustrating as it is to be saddled with an issue in 2023 because of what may have been sloppiness in 2017 – the probe will eventually bear out that all the right steps were taken once they found the documents, including when they didn’t immediately disclose what was initially found. Any consideration of the short-term benefits of speaking up is weighed against the longer-term concern of inadvertently interfering or seeming to influence the legal process.
“I understand that there’s a tension between protecting and safeguarding the integrity of an ongoing investigation with providing information publicly appropriate with that,” was how Ian Sams, a spokesman for the White House counsel’s office, put it on a call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon.
In the meantime, White House senior advisers would rather talk about success in fighting inflation than about the documents. They point to unemployment now at a 50-year low, and the drug price reductions kicking in from the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill which most had given up on until just before it passed last summer.
“President Biden has taken this matter seriously and shown leadership and respect for the law, which is what you want to see from a president,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. “Ultimately, everyday people are focused on the issues that impact their daily lives – cutting costs, adding jobs, and protecting basic freedoms like women’s health and voting rights – and that’s where the Biden administration has had historic success.”
In that way, Cooper added, he hasn’t been surprised by the last week.
“President Biden has gotten where he is,” Cooper said, “by doing the right thing and keeping his focus on the issues people care about and the solutions that will make a difference.”
A contrast with Trump
Based on what is known so far, the situation Biden faces because of these documents is different in many ways from the White House documents found at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last year. There is less classified material known to be involved and it was returned voluntarily, rather than withheld in defiance of subpoenas.
A Biden 2020 campaign alum embraced that contrast, while also pointing out that for all the attention to the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, there were no polls showing that to be a major voting issue in the midterms.
“Republicans are effectively defending a guy apprehended in a high-speed chase who then attacked the cops, and they’re going after a guy who self-reported a much less severe situation,” the alum said.
Biden’s team is moving forward confident that the president retains an inherent trust with many Americans who aren’t diehard Republicans, and that the combination of that faith and a deliberate, diligent approach will enable him to survive this situation like he’s survived others.
“Biden responds to these kind of DC pundit crises with an honesty and perspective that’s more in line with the average American,” said Greg Schultz, who was his campaign manager through most of the early primary efforts in the 2020 race but never joined the White House staff. “People like him, they feel that he’s trying to make some things better and they don’t get caught up in the stuff the DC elite do – and neither does Biden.”