President Biden stood outside the White House on Tuesday, celebrating what was arguably the best stretch of his presidency. He smiled. He basked, aviators firmly in place, in the sun. He signed his latest legislative priority into law.
That may be true. But they also may not remember it tomorrow. Cable news channels covered his remarks, but then quickly returned to the topic they had been covering before the brief Biden interlude: Donald Trump.
For much of his presidency, Biden has had a hard time competing for attention with the predecessor he calls “The Former Guy,” the one who left office a year-and-a-half ago but never really left the public consciousness. The news is often not particularly positive for the former president — revelations about his term, congressional testimony and hearings, legal rulings and complications — but it can nonetheless eclipse Biden’s ability to deliver his message and command public attention.
The phenomenon is a rarity in modern politics. President Barack Obama did not have to worry about being upstaged by news about George W. Bush, who quietly left for his Texas ranch and began pursuing life as a painter. George W. Bush did not have to worry about Bill Clinton. Trump himself did not have to worry about Obama, who made it a point not to offer regular commentary on his successor.
But it’s becoming a striking feature of the Biden presidency that the former president is regularly intruding to steal the public spotlight, less because of his current actions than the aftershocks of his presidency. No president in memory has had to contend with a predecessor who falsely claims he won the last election and hints broadly that he will run again, while land mines from his time in office continue to erupt.
This week is no exception. Over the course of several hours on Monday, as Biden was visiting flood victims in Kentucky, photos emerged purporting to show that Trump had flushed documents down the toilet. A new book excerpt reported that Trump had expressed appreciation for the loyalty that Nazi generals showed Adolf Hitler. The day concluded with the bombshell that the FBI had searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, a tempest that shows little sign of abating.
The onslaught rolled into Tuesday, which brought news of a court ruling that Trump must provide his tax returns to Congress. And on Wednesday, as Biden was holding a triumphant event in the East Room – noting slower inflation and signing a bill to help veterans exposed to toxins – news broke that Trump was pleading the fifth at a deposition related to a civil probe of his business dealings.
Biden promised voters he would seek to not grab their attention the way Trump did, but he may not have imagined that Trump would continue to seize that attention. In Biden’s remarks on Tuesday on signing the semiconductor bill, he never mentioned Trump but seemed to allude to him.
“We hear that noise out there. We know there are those who focus more on seeking power than securing the future ... those who seek division instead of strength in unity, who tear down rather than build up,” Biden said. “Today is a day for builders. Today, America is delivering.”
After signing measures to authorize Sweden and Finland joining NATO — another landmark for his presidency — Biden ignored questions shouted from stage right about the FBI search of Trump’s home.
But this week is only the latest example. During his recent trip overseas for meetings of NATO and the Group of Seven, Biden’s actions on the global stage were often overshadowed by the Jan. 6 congressional hearings. Efforts to corral countries into imposing caps on Russian oil imports were no match for former White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony about a purported assault by Trump on one of his Secret Service protectors and a fit of anger in which he threw a porcelain plate at a White House wall and left dripping ketchup in his wake.
But while reports about Trump continue to dominate the news, the former president is not the one setting the agenda or driving the coverage. The focus is no longer on the live-streaming of his rallies or his Twitter feed, but rather on the fallout from his startling actions as president and the resulting investigations.
The country is still experiencing the aftershocks from the Trump earthquake of four years. But it means that events often seem to be playing out in parallel worlds. In one, Biden signs laws, holds traditional presidential events and rarely mentions Trump; in the other, shocking revelations regularly unfold on what resembles a perpetual Trump news channel.
Biden continues with his earnest attempts at enacting and touting policy achievements, from infrastructure to veterans’ health. But even though some could have generational impact, they can get overtaken in the news by the sugar high of Trump drama, at least in the moment.
During a White House press briefing that stretched nearly an hour, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday discussed the administration’s strategy on sub-Saharan Africa, declining gas prices, the fate of various bills in Congress — and the president’s persistent cough earlier in the day (“He experiences coughs from time to time independent of him getting covid," she said).
But Trump and the raid of his home dominated reporters’ questions, despite Jean-Pierre’s effort to make it clear that the White House had little to say on the latest Trump turn. “The president was not briefed, was not aware of it,” she said. “No one from the White House was given a heads-up.”
That was the pattern as question after question followed, including Biden’s personal reaction to the raid, when and how he found out about it, his response to Republican criticism of it, his response to Trump potentially removing classified documents and whether he considers Trump a political rival.
“I’m just not going to comment on any reaction to what happened,” Jean-Pierre said. Several times she read prior comments from Biden saying that his Department of Justice would operate independently and without political interference.
But for Biden, the feeling is not unusual. His inauguration took place at a Capitol still reeling from the mob attack that Trump inspired. And about three weeks after he took office, Biden was pushing his first big legislative initiative, the American Rescue Plan.
But after his comments describing his hopes for the proposal and what it would accomplish, he was peppered with questions about Trump’s impeachment trial and whether he was going to watch it.
“I am not,” Biden responded. “Look, I told you before: I have a job.”