The Lessons Biden and the Democrats Learned From the First Impeachment

President Joe Biden speaks at the Pentagon alongside Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin
Patrick Semansky / AP

Midway through his speech at the Pentagon last Wednesday, President Joe Biden veered from global threats to a personal promise. The visit was Biden’s first to the building as commander in chief, and he was surrounded by symbols of power and position. He stood in front of four American flags, behind a lectern adorned with the presidential seal. He would never “dishonor” or “disrespect” the military, he vowed, nor would he ever “politicize the work you do.” He didn’t mention his predecessor.

At that precise moment, Representative Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania was three miles away in the U.S. Capitol, addressing the Senate on the second day of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. She described a defeated and venal man, “desperate to retain power by any means necessary,” who had provoked a mob to storm the Capitol on January 6.

No president has ever held office while a predecessor faced an impeachment trial, and for Biden and the Democrats the proceedings this week presented a strategic challenge. How do you hold Trump accountable without making him, once again, the dominant story, especially at a time when his media presence has faded? A long and complicated trial would risk derailing Biden’s stimulus package, slowing down his Cabinet confirmations, and distracting from his efforts to combat the pandemic.

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So why hold the trial? “We have to make sure that we answer the most serious constitutional crime ever committed by a president, or we send a very dangerous signal,” Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the lead House impeachment manager, told me. “We can’t have a new presumption that every president in the last few weeks of office has a free chance to incite an insurrection or coup or armed rebellion against the republic. That’s a really dangerous precedent to set.”

The Democrats have drawn on lessons gained from the impeachment trial a year ago. They have made this one more condensed, more straightforward, more visceral. They have aired chilling footage of the mob ransacking the Capitol and methodically shown how Trump spent months grooming his followers to believe he couldn’t lose a fair election.

The White House also had no wish to see the trial strung out over three weeks as was the case a year ago.“If it were like the first one, that would be a distraction from the president’s agenda,” Wade Randlett, a longtime Biden fundraiser, told me, stressing that he was speaking only for himself. “That one was long and complicated, but this will be open-and-closed. It will be like binge-watching a show on Netflix, and then it's over.”

Recognizing that the Senate trial would be getting coverage beyond their control, White House aides designed a schedule to showcase a president who is the un-Trump. On Monday, the day before the trial began, Biden sat in front of the presidential seal and took a virtual tour of a vaccination center in suburban Phoenix, Arizona. On Tuesday, he met with prominent business leaders to talk about his $1.9 trillion economic recovery proposal. On Wednesday, he showed up at the Pentagon, and yesterday he visited the National Institutes of Health and discussed ramping up vaccinations with Anthony Fauci and others. The contrast was clear: one president undermining democracy, another upholding it; one looking after the country’s interests, another protecting his own.

Will anyone notice? Trump’s impeachment isn’t a split screen; it’s the only screen. Cable television is giving it hours of uninterrupted coverage, and official Washington appears to be riveted. Anticipating this, the White House ensured that voters in a key swing state would get an alternative to round-the-clock Trump chyrons. One White House aide points to at least half a dozen stories in local news outlets devoted to Biden’s online appearance in Arizona, a state that he narrowly flipped in the November election.

“We knew that impeachment would take up a lot of bandwidth on cable news this week, and so we’re working to use other means of communication to connect with regular people,” the aide told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’ve been intentional about his schedule.”

So far, the strategy seems to have worked. As the trial has gone on, Biden has been enjoying strong job approval ratings: One new poll shows that 57 percent of the country approves of his performance. (Trump never cracked 50 percent in Gallup’s surveys.)

Biden is the first president in the modern era who’s had to worry about being overshadowed by his predecessor. Trump isn’t about to go away, which means he’ll always need to be part of the administration’s calculus. But as the trial winds down, Biden seems to have lost nothing and maybe even come out ahead. For hours each day, the House managers have told a nation that his once and possibly future opponent was unfit for office. Biden, meanwhile, is getting some practice handling a recurring predicament that he’ll be facing for the next four years: what to do when Trump resurfaces.