Congress lived up to its nature.
On Day One of the second Senate trial of former President Donald Trump, an ignoble but historic first, almost everything was sucked into the vortex of a legislature supercharged by impeachment. The White House certainly felt the pull.
What staffer could ignore the story that flooded inboxes, took over podcasts, and played out in real-time on television all day? Well, Jen Psaki, for one. And her boss, for another. On Tuesday, the presidential press secretary declined half-a-dozen times to comment on history, and those close to the new president and the White House tell RealClearPolitics that is not at all surprising.
Joe Biden will let the Senate deal with impeachment. He will focus on his own priorities instead. No matter which way reporters push him or the press secretary, they just won’t bite. It’s not the once-verbose Biden’s newfound style.
"He is not a pundit," Psaki said when asked another iteration of the same question that has come up in every single press briefing over the last month. "He’s not going to opine on the back-and-forth arguments, nor is he watching them." When asked on Monday if Trump should be held accountable for whipping up the crowd that stormed the Capitol, Biden demurred, “Let the Senate work that out.”
It has become muscle memory for Psaki whenever she gets a version of that question. She repeats her answer and then sidesteps. Does Biden think Trump is guilty of inciting an insurrection? The press secretary would only say that Trump’s “words and his actions and of course the events of Jan. 6 were a threat to our democracy.”
Does Biden believe that there is a dangerous precedent being set by impeaching Trump after he is out of office? Psaki repeated that the president “felt the process should proceed as history and many laws predetermined, and he is going to wait for the Senate to determine the outcome of this.”
Does Biden feel the process is constitutional? Psaki punted yet again: “I don’t think that’s for me or us to opine on.”
A reporter later started to hedge, insisting he wasn't exactly asking about impeachment, when the press secretary interrupted to say, “It can be an impeachment question. You can ask whatever you want.” Meanwhile, the presidential spokeswoman just won’t answer beyond what the White House has already put out in carefully vetted statements.
A source familiar with White House thinking explained the rationale by telling RCP, “We are clearly trying to stay disciplined and not get drawn into the cable news cycle around this.” Rather than pour more fuel on the partisan flames, this source added, “Our goal is to continue to beat the drum on the American Rescue Plan.”
According to Moe Vela, who served as a senior adviser to Biden in the Obama White House, the silence from the Oval Office “is a direct result of the fact that he is a son of the Senate.”
“I would expect nothing less from him than to step back, remain observant, but not inject himself into a process that he doesn't belong in,” Vela added. And that is a silver lining in his estimation. At one of the most irregular moments in recent history, the president is trying to return to “normalcy” by staying in his lane. “This is the finest example we could show the young people of this country,” the former aide said. “It is exactly how our democracy is supposed to work.”
It is not, however, how the last four years have worked. Trump was the dream of cable news producers everywhere: accessible and always opinionated. Biden won’t follow in those footsteps, Vela said, warning click-addled journalists that “there's going to be a weaning process.”
The press corps and the country can expect more consistency, predicted Matt Bennett, executive vice president of public affairs at Third Way, a center-left think tank.
“His theory of the race never changed, and his theory of why he was elected has not changed,” Bennett said. “It didn't have anything to do with what is happening in the impeachment trial. It has everything to do with rescuing the country from Trump's other sins, like massively bungling the pandemic response.
“We had a pundit-president for four years; it didn't work out very well,” he added. “Nobody in Biden World is interested in going back.”