A Joe Biden campaign mantra is that he, better than any other Democrat, can stand toe-to-toe against President Trump’s unruly political tactics. Now, events have put that claim to a real-time, high-stakes test.
The former vice president came off the sidelines of the impeachment debate Tuesday as the House prepared to launch an inquiry into whether Trump pressured Ukraine’s president to dig up dirt on Biden and his son.
“Stop stonewalling and provide the Congress all the facts it needs,” Biden said at a news conference in Delaware. If the president does not comply with all of Congress’ requests — including on the Ukraine matter and other investigations — “Donald Trump will leave Congress, in my view, no choice but to initiate impeachment,” he said.
Biden’s movement was significant after weeks of hedging on impeachment. But his shift came after several days in which some Democratic strategists fretted that he was acting too cautiously in responding to Trump’s attacks. And even in Tuesday’s statement, he stopped short of the full-throated call for immediate impeachment proceedings several other Democrats demand.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is emerging as Biden’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, has for months been calling for impeachment. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday said that he “hopes very much” that Congress will move to impeach.
Democrats are watching how Biden handles this first major, sustained attack by Trump, which came just as the president’s political difficulties have deepened, with many polls showing him trailing several of the Democratic contenders.
Trump has intensified his efforts to resurface unfounded claims that Biden used his White House post to improperly advance the business interests of his son Hunter. No evidence has substantiated claims that the younger Biden acted improperly, much less that the former vice president did, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from repeatedly calling both of them “corrupt.”
Biden hesitated to join the presidential race earlier this year in part because he was weighing its potential impact on his family. He said at Tuesday’s news conference that he had been fully prepared for personal attacks from Trump.
“I knew when I decided to run, this president would attack me and anyone else he thought would be a threat to his winning again,” Biden said. “I can take the political attacks. They’ll come and they’ll go. And soon they will be forgotten. But if we allow a president to get away with shredding the United States Constitution, that will last forever.”
Many Democrats, however, have said they believe that Biden moved slowly in responding to Trump’s insinuations and that he needs to be more aggressive.
“There is a strange dissonance with on one hand saying, ‘I am the toughest guy, and I won’t get pushed around’ and on the other getting mealy-mouthed when asked if Trump should be impeached,” said Brian Fallon, a former aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“How can you expect Democratic activists to rally to your cause? How can you expect the media to hold Trump’s feet to the fire when you don’t think his actions are worthy of the biggest response Congress could take?”
Many Democrats see the attack on Biden as resonant of the tactics Trump used against Clinton. In the 2016 campaign, he repeatedly made charges against her that stuck with voters even as fact-checkers debunked them.
“This is about Donald Trump, not Joe Biden,” said Rebecca Katz, a former aide to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, “but you have to be able to fight back against Donald Trump if you want to be president. We need more from all our Democratic leaders.”
Trump has admitted that during a telephone call in July, he urged the president of Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice president. He has also confirmed that he ordered some $400 million in aid to Ukraine held up in the days before he made the call, although he insists that was not an effort to put pressure on the Ukrainians.
When news of the phone call and Trump’s effort to enlist Ukraine in a campaign against Biden first became public five days ago, Biden strategists initially worried that responding aggressively risked bringing fresh attention to questions they thought were settled. That was a conundrum is familiar to Clinton veterans. They struggled with it daily.
“These conspiracy theories were things we did not want the candidate talking about,” said Josh Schwerin, who was a communications advisor to Clinton. “We didn’t want them becoming a bigger story. But there was a whole Russian disinformation campaign going on to amplify them. So voters heard about them anyway.
“You have to decide whether it is worth elevating a story to take it on and try to debunk it. It was a difficult decision to make on a daily basis.”
Ultimately, Clinton’s reluctance to engage claims from Trump and others came at a big cost. The storylines penetrated the mainstream media and Clinton’s reliance on fact-checkers and cable news panels to set the record straight enabled them to fester.
By the fall of the election year, Fallon said, the campaign was encountering voters inclined to support Clinton who planned to sit out the election because they were under the impression the candidate would be indicted soon after taking office. Or they thought she had Alzheimer’s disease.
“This is the same thing as happened in 2016, and it worked because Hillary did not push back,” said Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator and longtime Biden backer. “He needs to push back, call Trump a criminal, and make sure the American public understands this guy has attempted to recruit a foreign country to attack or try to discredit his rival.”
Biden’s initial response to Trump’s claims was a far cry from that. When first asked about the matter by reporters on the Iowa campaign trail on Friday, he made only a very brief response that defended his son and barely mentioned Trump.
Later that evening, his campaign issued a full written statement attacking Trump and calling for the release of the transcript of his conversation with the Ukrainian president. “If these reports are true, then there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country,” the statement said.
On Saturday, speaking again to reporters, Biden still shied away from calling for impeachment.
Over the weekend, however, the Biden campaign bulked up its defense by circulating memos to reporters and talking points to supporters to debunk Trump’s claims. He spotlighted the Trump attacks in fundraising appeals.
“We’re asking all strong Democrats to chip in $5 to defend Joe against these insidious attempts to smear and delegitimize this campaign,” one email said.
At fundraising events and talking to reporters, Biden said that the attack on him demonstrated that the president considered him his most formidable rival.
“We know what this guy’s going to be. It’ll be ugly, it’ll be mean, it’ll be degrading,” Biden said at a St. Louis fundraiser on Sunday. “Given half a chance, I think I could beat this guy like a drum.”
Biden’s zigzagging path toward endorsing impeachment is emblematic of a Democratic Party still finding its footing under Trump’s rules – or lack of rules – of engagement. As was the case with Clinton, Biden is in an awkward place. She faced an open FBI investigation into her emails which confused the public and which Trump was able to distort. Biden is grappling with an impeachment inquiry sparked by suspected presidential wrongdoing of which he is the victim.
Given that, said Scott Mulhauser, a former Biden aide, it was not surprising Biden stopped short of fully calling for impeachment Tuesday.
“This is a balance between being a Democratic candidate, being a statesman, and acknowledging that this also involves [him] personally,” he said.