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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden has the Oval Office. But Trump has center stage.

A television broadcasting news about the arrest of former President Donald Trump at the briefing room of the White House in Washington, on April 4, 2023. In the White House briefing room, Karine Jean-Pierre, the press secretary, deflected the obvious questions about Trump.

By Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear

The president of the United States spent four minutes on Tuesday talking to the American public about the possibilities and dangers of artificial intelligence. No, not that president. The one who actually occupies the Oval Office.

Americans could be forgiven if they momentarily forgot the most powerful person in the country. As helicopters and cameras followed every step of the Donald Trump legal drama in New York more than 200 miles to the north with white Ford Bronco-level intensity, President Joe Biden faded into the background, ceding the stage to his defendant-predecessor.

He seemed content to do so, at least for now. The White House made no effort to compete for attention with the arrest of a former president. Biden’s only appearance came during a meeting with his science advisers. Reporters were escorted in at 2:59 p.m., a hoarse Biden, fighting a cold, said a few words and the reporters were ushered out again at 3:03 p.m. Ten minutes later, the White House announced Biden was finished with public events for the day.

The tale of two presidents on this spring afternoon, one quietly focused on technology policy, the other having his fingerprints taken, underscored the unique challenge that has confronted Biden since taking office more than two years ago. No commander in chief in more than a century has been eclipsed in the public eye by the leader he succeeded the way Biden has at times. Now with the first criminal prosecution of a former president in American history, it will be that much harder to command the national conversation.

Yet it is a contrast that Biden’s team hopes will eventually benefit him. To the extent that the remainder of Biden’s term is a split screen between the 45th and 46th presidents, White House officials are willing to live with less airtime if it means their president is seen focusing on manufacturing, health care and climate change while the other one is seen focusing on pretrial motions, hostile witnesses and records of hush money paid to a porn star.

“2023 is going to be about Trump — his legal troubles are going to be a defining story,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who was White House communications director for President Barack Obama and a senior campaign adviser to Hillary Clinton. “What does the White House do about that? On some level, that’s fine. These stories will peak, and then they’ll go away. What Biden has to be is the anti-chaos president.”

The wild gyrations of the Trump show, in this view, only reinforce the reasons voters turned to Biden in the first place — the appeal of a steady hand against the storm.

“All of this could contribute to lack of faith in institutions, a sense of chaos, disorder, and so the Biden team has to work extra hard at showing that government can work,” Palmieri said.

Still, anti-chaos may be appealing to voters exhausted by Trumpian turmoil, but it has not historically been a big ratings draw. “I assume Biden’s team will say the split-screen contrast works in their favor,” said Kevin Madden, a longtime Republican strategist. “The problem, though, is with Trump there could be days or weeks like this one where they never get their half of the screen.”

No other president would want the kind of publicity that Trump is getting now, of course, but the fixation on the former president will extend beyond even this historic prosecution. Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney in Georgia, may decide soon whether to charge Trump in trying to interfere in the 2020 election, while Jack Smith, a federal special counsel, could seek indictments tied to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and the former president’s refusal to turn over classified documents.

As if those were not enough to keep the spotlight focused squarely on Mar-a-Lago rather than the White House, Trump is already scheduled to go on trial on April 25 in a lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll, a writer who has accused him of raping her. And a civil trial on allegations of financial fraud brought by Letitia James, the New York attorney general, is scheduled to follow on Oct. 2.

Against all that, a meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology may not seem as compelling to cable television producers or for that matter their audiences. When Biden flew to Minnesota on Monday to promote a factory making hydrogen electrolyzers, the news channels showed Trump’s private plane, the so-called “Trump Force One,” taking off for New York.

“I’m flipping stations and shaking my head,” Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman who broke with Trump, wrote on Twitter. “It’s no wonder we can’t recover from this Trump infection because the media continues to feed Trump’s thirst to be everything everywhere all at once! On the plane, off the plane, in the car. Y’all know the actual @POTUS travelled today?”

The White House was left to make the best of the situation. Jeffrey Zients, the new chief of staff, posted an image of the front page of The Star Tribune of Minneapolis featuring the headline “Biden touts investment in Minn.”

Ben LaBolt, White House communications director, expressed no concern about the ability to connect with the public. “We think being responsive to the concerns of hardworking Americans resonates and is what they expect of a president,” he said.

The closest parallel to Biden’s situation may be that of William Howard Taft, who could hardly compete for attention with his larger-than-life predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, who ultimately mounted an unsuccessful comeback campaign against his onetime ally in 1912.

That, of course, was long before the era of social media and cable television.

Biden left it to his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, to deflect the obvious questions about Trump. During her daily briefing, she talked about Finland’s ascension into NATO, Russia’s arrest of an American journalist and the president’s meeting with tech advisers. But the first arrest of a former president and “anything that is touching or relating to the case,” she declared, was off limits.

t that reporters in the White House briefing room neglected to press her. They asked about security concerns in New York and the rule of law. They inquired whether the president watched the televised proceedings and if he would consider pardoning Trump, even though a president’s pardon power does not extend to state cases like the one in New York.

When one reporter noted that there is “great shock in Japan about the arrest of the opposition candidate,” Jean-Pierre appeared confused for a moment, until she realized that it was just one more effort to get her to discuss Trump.

“I love how you guys are asking me this in different ways,” she said. She then repeated what she had said again and again: “I’m just not going to comment from here” before calling an end to the day’s briefing.

By the evening, her briefing got 12,000 views on the White House’s YouTube channel and the president’s brief science remarks 2,100. Within hours, Trump made a prime-time statement on his arrest that millions were expected to watch.

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