‘The former guy’: Biden and his aides work to ignore Trump — but it won’t be easy

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But the reality may prove more difficult. With the historic second impeachment of Trump recently concluded, Biden and his team now face the challenge of continuing to minimize not just Trump but also Trumpism — an overarching ethos that includes a former president eager to sow discord, an alternate reality of dangerous misinformation, and an abiding belief in grievance politics and incivility.

Speaking at a CNN town hall in Milwaukee last week, Biden emphasized his eagerness to move past his predecessor, calling him “the former guy” and lamenting: “I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump.”

Yet Biden kept talking about the very guy he said he wants to ignore.

“For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump,” Biden continued. “The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people. I’m tired of talking about Trump.”

Unlike other modern presidents, Biden still faces a predecessor challenging the very legitimacy of his election, and one who could emerge from the shadows to run against him in 2024. Although there was a drop in approval for Trump following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, a Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that 79 percent of Republicans still approved of his job as president — and that 60 percent of Republicans said GOP leaders should follow Trump’s leadership.

The same poll also found that 65 percent of Republicans thought there was “solid evidence” for Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud. And a January NBC News poll similarly found that Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen have taken hold within his party, with 74 percent of Republican voters saying Biden did not win the election legitimately, along with 30 percent of independents and 3 percent of Democrats.

This past week, Trump began reappearing in public, issuing a scathing denunciation of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who, after voting to acquit Trump in the impeachment trial, said the former president was “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump also gave interviews to conservative hosts on Fox News, Newsmax and One America News.

And while Biden may find he can largely avoid an out-of-office Trump, he still must engage with Trump acolytes who are trying to stymie his legislation.

Nonetheless, senior Biden officials argue that ignoring Trump is easier now that Biden is president. The major crises facing Biden, including the deadly coronavirus pandemic and the stalled economy, are the top concerns of a majority of Americans, these officials said.

Biden and his team are reaching out to Republican senators, House members, governors, mayors and other local officials in an effort to enlist bipartisan support for their governing agenda, including pushing through a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. And they are trying to sell their relief package directly to the public through a range of mediums, including booking senior administration officials on Fox News as a way to reach soft Trump supporters.

Any distractions generated by Trump, top administration officials said, are just that: distractions.

“In some ways, it’s much easier to ignore Trump now that we’re in the White House, because we’re not running against him,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said. “We’re running against the coronavirus, we’re running against a number of challenges. And the Biden presidency rises and falls on the Biden presidency.”

Referring to Trump’s recent round of television interviews, in which he largely talked about the legacy of the late conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, Bedingfield added: “Calling into Fox News to talk about Rush Limbaugh has next to nothing to do with what the contours of the American Rescue Plan look like.”

Some political operatives say ignoring Trump comes with its own risks. Michael Steel, a Republican strategist and former senior adviser to former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) — whom Trump vanquished in the 2016 Republican primaries — recalled how the Bush campaign tried unsuccessfully to ignore Trump, who nonetheless sucked up all the media attention.

But now, Steel said, the dynamic is different. Despite commanding real loyalty within the Republican Party, Trump is still a former president — not to mention one who is banned from Twitter and other social media platforms, while facing possible investigations into his personal finances and business dealings.

“Ignoring him might be a practical strategy today in a way that it wasn’t in 2016,” Steel said. But, he added, “if he’s able to come back in a big way, you can’t ignore him, because he changes the discussion, he changes the debate, he becomes the issue, and he’s willing to say and do practically anything to pull that attention and pull that debate his way.”

Cliff Sims, a former Trump White House official, said Biden and his aides are fooling themselves trying to brush aside Trump.

“Trump and Trumpism aren’t going away, because Biden represents a return to the issues that gave rise to them in the first place: mass amnesty, kowtowing to China, crushing American jobs under the weight of radical environmentalism and forever wars in the Middle East,” Sims said. “If Democrats — and even some Republicans — think they can stick their heads in the sand and return to their pre-Trump status quo, they’re in for another rude awakening in ’22 and ’24.”

Trump is not the only challenge facing the Biden administration. The falsehoods and misinformation spread by the former president also live on among many of his supporters. A new breed of Republican politicians, including Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), continue to perpetuate his brand of grievance politics.

Greene, for example, has previously embraced the QAnon extremist ideology that the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat, which peddles falsehoods about a nonexistent global pedophile ring. She in the past has falsely claimed that some mass shootings were staged by supporters of gun-control measures and that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were mounted by government forces.

The official White House policy continues to be to dismiss all things related to Trump. White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeatedly tried to avoid discussing this month’s Trump impeachment trial — addressing it only obliquely when specifically pressed by reporters — and refused to entertain questions on Greene and her false claims, saying at one point: “We don’t want to elevate conspiracy theories further in the briefing room.”

Instead, the Biden administration is relying on a constellation of other Democratic entities to combat misinformation. Earlier this month, for instance, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took out ads attacking Greene, as well as tying other Republicans to her extremist ideology.

White House advisers also say that by speaking directly to the public, they can further combat dangerous falsehoods.

“If you give them facts, if you set out a clear direction, if you tell them why you’re doing things, that is the best antidote to misinformation, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden.

While Biden has promised to govern as a unifier, advisers say he understands that he is unlikely to win over the most fervent Trump supporters, especially those who baselessly believe he stole the presidency.

“Is he focused on getting every last person in America to agree with him? No,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “As a political strategy, that doesn’t make sense.”

The Biden plan to ignore Trump began early in the team’s 2020 campaign, with a focused strategy to limit the amount of engagement they had with Trump.

“You don’t want to be playing defense. It takes the focus off your message,” said John Anzalone, a top adviser and campaign pollster. “Both Biden and the campaign were really disciplined about that.”

But Anzalone said that at certain moments, the Biden team did have to push back against Trump’s attacks.

“If the Trump campaign was putting out a TV ad saying, ‘Joe Biden wants to raise your taxes,’ we’d say, ‘No, he doesn’t,’ ” Anzalone said. “It wasn’t like we weren’t knocking down disinformation from the Trump campaign or Trump himself. We would pick and choose what we thought was important, but we weren’t getting off our message.”

For Biden, the ability to ignore Trump and stay above the partisan fray may be easier during his first year in office. But presidents in their second year frequently turn toward more-partisan rhetoric as they attempt — often unsuccessfully — to lift their party in the midterm elections.

Already, there is an ongoing debate among Democrats over who should be the focus of their attacks. Some argue that Trump will remain the fuel for motivating Democratic and independent voters. But others are pressing the party to elevate other GOP leaders, arguing that Trump is a complicated villain because of his populist appeal.

“Ultimately, when it comes time to assign a face to the Republican Party, there are arguments that Mitch McConnell and other corporatist Republicans might be a better, more politically advantageous face than Trump,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama who now co-hosts the liberal podcast “Pod Save America.”

Biden, meanwhile, might find common cause with some moderate Republicans who also want to minimize Trump’s effect on modern-day politics. 

“I think there is great currency in both parties to appeal to anger and resentment, whether on the left or the right, and I don’t think that’s going away,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “But I do believe that if President Biden stays the course, and retains a sense of comity and dignity, that he will find allies in both parties that he can work with.”

Romney, who lost to Obama in 2012 as the GOP presidential nominee, said Biden has an opportunity to guide the country out of the divisive morass of recent years — and that ignoring Trump might be a good place to start.

“History would suggest that great leaders don’t attack the things they abhor,” Romney said. “They instead take a course which is of itself so admirable that people follow them.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.