Hopeful Yet Cautious, Biden’s Team Aims to Exploit Trump’s Conviction


Twelve jurors in New York just handed President Biden a remarkable opportunity by convicting his predecessor. How politically useful it proves to be for Mr. Biden will help decide the 2024 election.

Former President Donald J. Trump’s guilty verdict on all 34 counts in his hush-money trial on Thursday set off a wild outburst of Democratic celebrations and an outpouring of Republican fury, and it gave Mr. Biden’s campaign a fresh way to frame the race: a stark choice between someone who is a convicted felon and someone who is not.

For more than a year, Mr. Biden has sought to cast the 2024 election not as a referendum on his four years in office but on whether voters want to return Mr. Trump to office after a first term in which he undermined abortion rights, democracy and the rule of law.

It has not been working so far. Mr. Trump has led many polls, with voters holding dim views of Mr. Biden’s stewardship of the economy, the southern border and foreign wars. But Mr. Trump’s conviction could well shake up U.S. politics, serving as a convening moment that cuts through a fragmented news media ecosystem even if it does not change pessimism about inflation and the cost of living.

The Manhattan jury’s verdict is likely to focus attention on Mr. Trump in a way that Mr. Biden’s supporters have long hoped it would. Even if Mr. Biden does not directly affix the title “felon” to his rival, scores of his allies are planning to do so in their communications about Mr. Trump through the end of the campaign.

“Donald Trump is a racist, a homophobe, a grifter and a threat to this country,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a top Biden surrogate and an influential billionaire donor for Democratic causes. “He can now add one more title to his list — a felon.”

Mr. Biden has to this point said virtually nothing about the New York case against Mr. Trump or any of the other three criminal indictments he faces, trying to stay above the fray as his rival baselessly claims that Mr. Biden orchestrated the charges. And the White House demurred after the verdict: “We respect the rule of law, and have no additional comment,” said Ian Sams, a spokesman for the White House Counsel’s Office.

The Biden campaign was less circumspect. Its aides tried to tie the verdict to the choice voters will face in November.

“Donald Trump has always mistakenly believed he would never face consequences for breaking the law for his own personal gain,” said Michael Tyler, the campaign’s communications director. “Convicted felon or not, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president.”

Mr. Biden, who spent Thursday in Delaware with his family honoring the anniversary of his son Beau’s death, posted a fund-raising appeal on X that read, “There’s only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: At the ballot box.”

But there were signs that the Biden campaign was seeking to restrain fellow Democrats’ jubilation, signaling to surrogates that they should not be overly partisan in their responses to the conviction. Many of the campaign’s usual cadre of top supporters — including Govs. Gavin Newsom of California, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Tim Walz of Minnesota and Wes Moore of Maryland — said nothing immediately in public and declined to comment about the verdict early Thursday evening.

Jim Messina, the campaign manager for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, urged caution about the impact of the trial’s outcome.

“Even though he’s a convicted felon, Trump can still win,” Mr. Messina said.

Other allies of the president said Democrats should hammer home the message that Mr. Trump was found guilty of committing crimes to cover up a sex scandal that could have derailed his 2016 campaign.

“All Democrats should be calling this a finding of guilt on election interference,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California.

The president’s campaign expected a fund-raising boost in the immediate hours after the verdict, though officials also expected Mr. Trump to raise significant sums. MoveOn, the progressive advocacy group, took orders for 10,000 free “Trump is a felon” stickers in the first two hours after his conviction. The Republican fund-raising platform WinRed was not working after Mr. Trump’s conviction.

Within minutes of the verdict, Democratic groups began publishing pre-written statements and social media posts. Many referred to Mr. Trump as a “convicted criminal” or “convicted felon,” previewing how outside allies of Mr. Biden intended to use the verdict politically.

Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, who led two Trump impeachment efforts in the House, called the former president “unfit to serve in any elected office.” Representative Robert Garcia of California, a member of the Biden campaign’s advisory board, said Mr. Trump was “a con man and a criminal.” And Representative Nikema Williams of Georgia said the verdict would make Mr. Trump “an unhinged and even more dangerous candidate.”

Yet the political fallout is uncertain. For weeks, Democratic operatives have debated the utility of polling that suggested a conviction would hurt Mr. Trump among some voters. The former president’s allies are hoping for a prolonged surge of Republican anger that will juice turnout in November.

David Axelrod, an architect of the Obama campaigns, called Mr. Trump’s conviction “uncharted waters” and said the political ramifications were unknowable.

“The question isn’t just how voters react but how Trump himself reacts,” Mr. Axelrod said. “If it causes him to retreat further into rage and self-pity, obsessing over his own grievances rather than addressing the concerns of voters, it may make the difference for people on the bubble.”

How much the verdict breaks through will depend in part on how successful the campaign is at focusing attention on the stakes of the election. Mr. Biden and his campaign have for months sought to make their case on abortion and democracy. In the hours after the conviction, surrogates began working out how to include Mr. Trump’s conviction in their talking points.

“I think this makes the choice even clearer: Do you want a president like Joe Biden, who delivers for working-class people?” Lt. Gov. Austin Davis of Pennsylvania said in an interview. “Or do you want a president who’s, quite frankly, a convicted felon who’s willing to break the law, who believes he’s above the law?”

And Representative Jasmine Crockett, a Texas Democrat who on Wednesday traveled with Mr. Biden to Philadelphia for a campaign event focused on Black voters, said she hoped the conviction would be a “rallying cry for the left,” at a time when the president has lost support from some progressives over the war in Gaza.

Speaking from the perspective of a hypothetical progressive voter, Ms. Crockett said: “We’ve got to show up because what will we look like in this world if the president of the United States is a doggone 34-count convicted felon?”

She continued, “We may not love Joe Biden, but we know that Joe Biden is absolutely on a whole other top-tier shelf level than Trump.”

Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting from Rehoboth Beach, Del.

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