Joe Biden faces historic challenges when he enters the White House on Jan. 20: a raging pandemic, persistently high unemployment, simmering tensions with China and Russia — and a predecessor who won’t go away.
Aware of the chaos and distraction Donald Trump has proved he can muster, the president-elect and his advisers have developed a strategy they believe is the only way to neutralize the threat: Ignore him.
One lesson of Biden’s winning presidential campaign, they say, is that there’s little incentive to engage with Trump, and that his penchant for spectacle is wearing thin with the American people. The tension will reach a head on Jan. 6, when Congress formally ratifies Biden’s victory as Trump’s supporters wage protests both on the streets of Washington, egged on by the president, and within the House and Senate.
Biden has been “adamant that we were not going to get down in the gutter with Donald Trump every day,” said adviser Kate Bedingfield. “That’s not who he is, and that’s not what the American people want to see in a president.”
But the incoming administration is going to have trouble ignoring Trump, who’s poised to remain at least an aggravation to Biden. After refusing to concede defeat and declaring the election he lost to be illegitimate, he’s made clear he doesn’t plan to quietly retire, and has told associates he’ll run for president again in 2024.
For generations, U.S. presidents leaving the office to a successor of the opposition party have yielded power gracefully — even those defeated for re-election after a single term. But Trump’s attitude has set up the most awkward transfer of power in modern history, and threatens to hamstring Biden as he confronts a long list of crises.
“This is unprecedented territory,” said Steve Israel, a former eight-term Democratic congressman from New York and director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. “We’ve never had a former president who is dedicated to the proposition of the failure of his successor.”
Biden’s team regards Trump’s attempts to overturn the will of voters — including his effort to recruit Republican lawmakers to challenge congressional certification of the election results on Wednesday — as doing more harm to the outgoing president’s legacy than to Biden.
And they believe there are already signs that Trump’s bully pulpit and ability to command public attention is eroding, including waning media coverage of his election-related antics and congressional Republicans’ willingness to buck the president in recent legislative battles, including the first override of a Trump veto.
But Biden’s strategy to deprive Trump of attention will likely face frequent and immediate tests.
The outgoing president, sensing that his remaining power lies with still-formidable base supporters, has spent recent weeks threatening Republican lawmakers who dare to cross him.
Trump has repeatedly emphasized that he captured 74 million votes, a record for a defeated presidential candidate, and asserted that his presence on the ballot helped Republicans win election and re-election to federal offices.
“Republicans in the Senate so quickly forget,” he tweeted on Dec. 22. “Right now they would be down 8 seats without my backing them in the last Election.” In the same post, Trump predicted that John Thune, the number two Senate Republican, would lose a 2022 GOP primary challenge, “political career over!!!”
After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recognized Biden’s victory and encouraged his members to avoid a messy fight over certifying the vote, a White House aide circulated a graphic to lawmakers on Capitol Hill suggesting the Kentucky Republican captured his seventh term thanks to Trump’s endorsement.
Trump’s gravitational pull over Republicans has only been strengthened by his prolific fundraising since Election Day. His campaign announced it had banked $207.5 million in the two months following the president’s defeat, after anemic fundraising relative to Biden before votes were cast.
Trump has also persuaded a band of conservative lawmakers to contest Congress’s certification of the election results on Wednesday, which is usually a pro forma affair. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, said last week he’d join many House Republicans who already planned to object to the certification of electoral college votes from several battleground states. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas led ten other lawmakers on Saturday in calling for a delay in Biden’s certification and making other demands.
The actions by Hawley, Cruz and others will force congressional Republicans to go on the record as either supporting or rejecting Trump’s false claims of a fraudulent vote. Cruz and Hawley have both been mentioned as potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates.
Once he’s departed from Washington, there’s little doubt Trump will turn his attention toward tearing down Biden and attempting to undermine his presidency.
While it remains to be seen whether those efforts extend beyond inflammatory posts on social media, the outgoing president possesses a talent for manipulating the media and grabbing attention with tweets, even when they’re plainly untrue. He channeled White racial and economic grievances into one successful presidential campaign and a close loss for re-election, and is likely to try to turn those same cultural forces against the new president.
In Biden’s transition office, staffers have barely discussed Trump’s efforts to sow discord. The battle against the coronavirus eclipsed all other issues during the presidential campaign — diminishing the effect of Trump’s mud-slinging — and Biden’s advisers expect health and economic issues to remain top of mind for lawmakers and voters.
“Members of Congress have to deal with their constituencies in real time,” said former Sen. Chris Dodd, a Biden campaign adviser. “The majority will come around to trying to get something done. Just providing an echo chamber for criticism doesn’t strike me as being terribly good politics.”
And the Biden team believes there’s evidence Trump’s grip on American politics is already weakening. The annual defense policy bill, which became law on Friday after the Senate joined the House in handily overriding Trump’s veto, is an example.
Trump also tried unsuccessfully to pressure lawmakers to increase the amount of money provided to Americans in a pandemic relief bill that passed Congress last month. The president eventually signed the measure even though his demands weren’t met, and only after a damaging delay.
There’s also a sense among Biden’s aides that Trump’s increasingly outlandish claims and his inability to accept defeat are eroding his standing — in effect, trading attention in the short term for respect and a legacy in the long term.
The president’s effort to attack the legitimacy of Biden’s election has been rejected by courts across the country and become a running joke in popular culture. Mainstream media coverage has focused on the many false claims and missteps by Trump and his legal team, as well as dissent by top officials including former Attorney General William Barr, who departed in December after declaring that the Justice Department had seen no evidence of widespread fraud.
Trump has even begun to shed followers on his most important mouthpiece, Twitter, with more than 379,000 users unsubscribing from his account in the past month, according to Factba.se. Biden gained more than 2.6 million new followers in the same period.
Consumed with election conspiracies, Trump has all but ignored the raging coronavirus pandemic, with its record daily cases, soaring hospitalizations and death toll that’s passed 349,000 in the U.S. While he could have overseen a rapid and successful distribution of vaccines developed under his administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” program, the pace of shots instead badly trails the 20 million doses government officials promised would be injected by the end of 2020.
That’s led to even more criticism of Trump’s handling of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, the issue that likely doomed his presidency. On Dec. 30, Trump pushed back, saying it was “up to the states to administer” the vaccines, adding, “Get moving!”
While Biden and his aides would prefer Trump go away, some see a silver lining to his continued presence on the national stage. Trump is so toxic to Democrats of all stripes that he helps to unify a party that might otherwise be more openly squabbling over policy and political issues, such as Biden’s appointments, according to one former Biden campaign official who asked not to be identified.
Biden himself predicted to donors in early December that “as Donald Trump’s shadow fades away, you’re going to see an awful lot change.” Biden has predicted that a bipartisan spirit can once again develop in Washington.
But the president-elect also allowed that he “may eat these words.” Asked a few weeks later if Trump’s departure would really change the political climate, Biden responded more warily.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m not a fortune teller.”
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