On Monday, Biden declined to comment on what is arguably a central question facing the country — how and whether his predecessor should be held to account for his role in encouraging a mob that sought to overturn his election loss.
“Let the Senate work that out,” Biden replied when asked by reporters.
“He has a full schedule this week,” Psaki said when asked about Biden’s plans as the Senate trial unfolds amid what is likely to be bitter partisan acrimony. “I don’t expect that he’s going to be, you know, posturing or commenting on this through the course of the week.”
But it is unclear if the White House will, or even can, be as removed from this political drama, as Biden and his aides suggest. No sitting president has ever had to contend with the impeachment trial of his predecessor unfolding during his own presidency, let alone in the crucial opening weeks that often present the best opening for getting things done.
Besides siphoning off the attention of the public and lawmakers, the trial, which is expected to last until at least the middle of next week, could delay Biden’s agenda and the confirmation of top appointees. Vice President Harris could be summoned to cast tiebreaking votes on procedural issues.
More broadly, Biden has spoken for two years of “restoring the soul of America” and moving beyond the Trump era. Yet in making it clear he will distance himself from the Senate trial, Biden is removing himself from the highest-profile effort to grapple with Trump’s legacy.
“The closest comparison, but it’s not direct, is Ford trying to figure out what to do with Nixon,” said Timothy Naftali, a historian who has written about impeachment. “Ford needed to find a way to turn the page.”
Then-president Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, ensuring he would not face criminal charges for the wrongdoing of the Watergate scandal, arguing that the country needed to move past a bitterly divisive period.
“I understand why Gerald Ford did what he did. But I think there was a cost to turning the corner as quickly as he did,” said Naftali, the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “And I worry that, through an understandable concern about the pandemic, Joe Biden may be turning the corner too quickly.”
Trump was impeached for allegedly inciting an insurrection, a charge that stems from his encouragement of a mob that assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6, forcing Congress to suspend the process of tallying the electoral college votes that showed Biden to be the victor in the November election.
Biden has said his focus is on tackling the crises facing the country, including the pandemic and the economic collapse, which are disrupting — and sometimes ending — the lives of millions of Americans.
As Democrats and Republicans have battled over the rules for an evenly split Senate, and the GOP has grappled with whether to discipline such members as Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Biden has sought to send the message that he is dealing with more substantive issues, at times creating a jarring split screen.
Biden’s approach also creates a contrast with Trump, who at times appeared to weigh in on every controversy facing the country, not just in politics but entertainment and culture as well.
Still, the White House says Biden will probably not get regular updates from Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) or his own White House staff on how the trial is moving forward. Nor will he talk to senators about such issues as whether to allow witnesses, even though such decisions could affect the trial’s duration and whether it eclipses his agenda.
Instead, Biden will be meeting or talking with business leaders, mayors and governors, as well as with members of Congress from both parties, Psaki said.
Although the impeachment trial will distract from the new president’s agenda and occupy hours of Senate floor time while Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan hangs in the balance, the nothing-to-see-here public stance reflects the view among Biden and his close aides that there is nothing to be gained by his involvement.
While his strategy leaves the head of the Democratic Party on the sidelines of an effort led by Democrats, it keeps faith with his broader message about the separation of powers and the importance of seeking bipartisanship.
On Monday, as the Trump team delivered its defense brief to the Senate and both sides geared up for Tuesday’s opening, Biden’s major public event of the day was a video “tour” of a 10-lane drive-through vaccination site in an Arizona football stadium parking lot.
Former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, who worked for Bill Clinton when the former president was impeached in 1998, said keeping the trial at arm’s length is a sound strategy. Clinton, who was acquitted by the Senate in 1999, famously sought to “compartmentalize” during his own trial, focusing on substantive governing issues as congressional Republicans sought to remove him.
“The White House doesn’t need to do play by play punditry for this. There will be plenty of that in the Senate,” Lockhart said.
Clinton’s White House chief of staff, John Podesta, instructed staffers to avoid talking about the Monica Lewinsky scandal or other aspects of the case against the president. Clinton was impeached for seeking to cover up his affair with the White House intern during a related investigation.
Among those working in the White House at the time were two of Biden’s current top advisers. Ron Klain, now chief of staff, was chief of staff for Vice President Al Gore, and Steve Ricchetti, now White House counselor, was deputy chief of staff.
The goal then was to avoid getting distracted and instead to focus on Clinton’s agenda items, recalled Lockhart. “Ninety-nine percent of the White House was told not to pay attention to it,” he said.
But he added, “Of that 99 percent, maybe 60 percent didn’t. It’s hard not to.”
Back then, those in the White House had jobs that depended on the outcome. This time, Biden’s White House is not at risk, making the events less personal.
While it would prolong the trial, congressional leaders could seek permission from the Biden administration to allow civil servants to testify, or ask it to potentially open up additional federal records about the federal response to the Jan. 6 attack.
But it appears the president’s team will try to steer clear. “There seems to be a feeling on the part of the Biden White House that this is a distraction from more important matters, and that it is not in the public interest to continue this trial for very long,” Naftali said.
Although it stands to reason that the faster the trial concludes, the better for Biden’s efforts to get stimulus checks in people’s bank accounts, White House officials declined to offer public comment on how long the trial should last.
“He will leave the pace and the process and the mechanics of the impeachment proceedings up to the members of Congress,” Psaki said.
The outcome appears assured, whatever Biden may think of it.
Nearly all Republican senators backed the former president in a vote late last month after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) challenged the legal basis of the Senate impeachment trial, saying the Constitution does not allow for such a proceeding against a president who has left office. Most legal scholars disagree.
Attorneys for Trump asked the Senate to dismiss the impeachment case against him in a brief Monday that accuses Democrats of a “hunger for this political theater.”
The House impeachment managers, who will act as prosecutors, took issue with the call to dismiss the case, saying Trump “willfully incited violent insurrection against the government.”
Questions about impeachment have come up at almost every White House briefing, and by now Psaki’s responses are familiar.
“He’s going to leave the mechanics, the timing and the specifics of how Congress moves forward on impeachment to them,” Psaki said at her first briefing, on the evening of Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.