WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Thursday he had watched coverage of Donald Trump's impeachment trial and thought “some minds may have been changed” after prosecutors showed gripping and graphic video of the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol.
Biden told reporters in the Oval Office that while he did not view any of the Senate trial live, he had seen the morning news. “I think the Senate has a very important job to complete,” the president said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said later that “the footage was just a reminder of how shocked and saddened” Biden was on the day rioters stormed the Capitol.
It was a notable shift in tone after the new president spent much of the week doing his best to avoid the issue. And it came after House prosecutors aired never-before-seen footage from the violent insurrection that showed police officers being beaten by the rioters and presented a fuller picture of the precarious situation at the Capitol on the day when Congress was meeting to affirm Biden's victory.
Biden had insisted previously that he would not watch the proceedings, and for much of this week, Psaki dodged questions about the trial. She had declined to offer Biden’s opinion on whether the trial was constitutional or about the outcome because, as she said, the president is “not a pundit."
While expanding on Biden’s views about the trial, she refused on Thursday to weigh in on Trump’s culpability.
She said Biden, in his new comments, “was not intending to give a projection or a prediction, but was just giving a very human and emotional response” to what many were feeling on that day. Pressed on whether Biden believes the Senate should convict Trump, an outcome that's seen as unlikely, Psaki avoided answering directly. She said the president “knows there’s a role for Congress to play and a role for him to play."
It reflects the message Biden's team has tried to drive home: The focus is on governing and not the historic events unfolding at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Biden’s calendar this week was meant as counterprogramming to the trial, with events on pandemic aid and vaccine distribution.
Privately, White House aides said Biden would gain little politically from weighing in on the trial and that any comment he makes would draw the focus away from his predecessor’s misconduct and onto Biden’s own views.
They said that staying above the fray would allow Biden to focus on his COVID-19 relief package and remain on cordial terms with Republicans as he tries to steer the $1.9 trillion bill through Congress.
Among some Biden aides, there is a sense he will need to weigh in at the end of the trial, particularly if an expected acquittal prompts Trump to break his silence and further inflame a deeply divided nation.
Until now, the White House’s public approach to the proceedings has been: Impeachment? What impeachment?
Psaki at times has all but twisted herself in knots at the White House podium to dodge saying much of anything about the trial. "He’s not going to opine on back-and-forth arguments,” she said Tuesday.
On Wednesday, she insisted that Biden would “not be a commentator” and would instead focus on the pandemic.
The president met with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and business leaders on Tuesday to push for his economic recovery package. On Wednesday, he announced sanctions on Myanmar's military rulers in the wake of a coup and then he visited the Pentagon. On Thursday, he planned a trip to the National Institutes of Health to discuss the nation’s vaccination program.
It's all in keeping with Biden’s overall approach to Trump throughout the 2020 campaign: avoid getting bogged down in each new attack or controversy from Trump and focused on his own overarching message about a return to competent leadership in the White House. It also reflects a belief among White House aides that the chattering classes in Washington and on Twitter are often far removed from the realities of everyday Americans.
“I think the biggest news story for most Americans is getting the virus under control, and President Biden has shown, both on the campaign trail and in the White House, that his focus is what the American people are waking up thinking about every day,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama campaign press secretary.
With the Senate occupied by impeachment, White House legislative affairs staffers were working with House committee members on the COVID-19 legislation.
But while the administration’s outward focus was on the pandemic, the trial was inescapable within the West Wing.
Televisions were tuned to the proceedings. Aides kept one another updated and briefed the president. Preliminary work was underway for Biden to weigh in at the end of the trial in an effort to lower the temperature of a divided nation.
Trump's Twitter account has been suspended and he so far has followed aides' advice to keep a low profile for fear of endangering an acquittal.
In Trump’s previous impeachment, a year ago, he relentlessly weighed in on the trial on Twitter and mixed in a variety of events. The prior president to be impeached, Bill Clinton, also made a show of focusing on his day job, scheduling a flurry of events opposite the 1999 trial that ended up improving his approval ratings.
The clearest historical precedent for the moment in which Biden finds himself may be that of President Gerald Ford seeking to unify the nation after the damaging Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's resignation. Like Biden, Ford sought to move the country past his predecessor in part by ignoring him and focusing on his own agenda. In a move that was controversial at the time but one that presidential historian Jeff Engel said was ultimately seen as beneficial for the national mood, Ford pardoned Nixon.
Engel suggested that Biden continue to focus his message on Americans, rather than wade into fights on Capitol Hill.
“Joe Biden, I think, will by his very nature feel responsible for and speak to Americans of all stripes," he said. “That’s not going to cure our problems by any measure, but it will provide a balm, if you will, to allow things to quiet down.”
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.