Who is afraid of Donald Trump's 34 felony convictions? Joe Biden

Someone needs to tell President Joe Biden that the 2024 election is not normal

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 28, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump departs after speaking at the Faith and Freedom Road to Majority conference at the Washington Hilton on June 24, 2023 in Washington, DC.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump departs after speaking at the Faith and Freedom Road to Majority conference at the Washington Hilton on June 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s historic status as the first former president and presumptive major party presidential candidate to be convicted of a felony was a gift to President Biden in the first presidential debate. Did Biden show the courage to use it to his advantage Thursday night?

The early consensus appears to be “no.”

President Biden and his campaign advisors convinced themselves that using Trump’s felony conviction as a weapon against him would somehow discredit the jury’s guilty verdict and perhaps backfire on Biden. His campaign was also of the mind that Trump’s felony conviction is so historic that it would be a type of earthquake that would shift the fundamentals of the 2024 election against Trump. They were wrong.

In essence, President Biden and his spokespeople and advocates really did not need to do anything because Trump’s criminality and the threat he represents to the nation is so obvious. They also reached a preliminary conclusion that the electorate is so polarized that Trump’s status as a felon may not peel away any of his voters, and that undecided and independent voters in the battleground states would not necessarily be moved by a more aggressive posture that emphasized the corrupt ex-president’s wanton criminality.

Writing at Politico, Lauren Egan, Eli Stokols and Ben Johansen summarized this several weeks ago as:

It’s a political gamble to leave such fodder on the floor. And not every Democrat is thrilled by it.

But Biden aides are betting that they don’t actually need to talk about, let alone remind, the electorate about Trump’s personal drama and legal problems. If they do, the thinking is it just bogs Biden down with an issue that they fundamentally do not think moves voters.

Everything about Biden’s past 24 hours was choreographed to project that line of thinking. He did not reshape his Thursday afternoon as the verdict came down. When he did speak about Trump at the White House on Friday afternoon, he did so only briefly. To the dismay of some, he actively chose to give comments on the situation in Gaza — the very topic that is ripping apart the Democratic coalition — rather than address the substance of Trump’s guilt (he did accuse Trump of recklessly attacking the justice system).

Biden aides say that the president’s approach today is the one they will adopt going forward. They’re not foreclosing the possibility that they incorporate the verdict into some of their political pitch. But no one in Wilmington is currently reshaping their 2024 playbook around this. They have a preternatural belief that a steady, sober approach — while maybe not satisfying for the more blood-thirsty partisans — can and will work. They point to 2020.

One Biden campaign official raised recent polling that found a majority of Americans believe Trump committed a crime. “Labeling him a ‘convicted felon’ again and again doesn’t advance the ball,” the official said. Instead, “you use it as another piece of evidence in a larger pattern of behavior,” so the guilty verdict is “the proof point, not the message.”

The 2024 election is not normal. The United States and its people face an existential threat from Donald Trump and his neofascist MAGA movement and a Republican Party that is in thrall to it a political crime boss and aspiring dictator. For the Democrats and President Biden to not use Trump’s status as an unrepentant felon (one who is bragging about his conviction and using it as a badge of honor and to rally his followers) and enemy of democracy and human society is an act of extreme incompetence.

After a near-universally panned opening first quarter of the debate, Biden finally decided to go on the offense against Trump, convicted felon and Public Enemy Number One. In an essay at Politico, Elena Schneider, Lauren Egan and Lisa Kashinsky report details from the Biden campaign that may explain the hesitation:

President Joe Biden’s campaign had been restrained in its attacks on Donald Trump’s New York criminal conviction for weeks until the campaign said internal polling and focus groups showed the verdict turned off voters.

The result, hitting TV sets across the country on Monday, was the campaign’s unleashing of its sharpest attack ad yet, depicting Trump as a “convicted criminal who’s only out for himself.” And the campaign says it’s just the start. Biden advisers say they plan to hammer Trump over the coming weeks — aiming to both set up a favorable narrative ahead of next week’s debate and keep Trump’s felony conviction top-of-mind for voters who haven’t yet fully tuned into the election.

“We’ve seen in polling since the conviction that the more the conviction is front and center in voters’ attention, the worse it is for Trump,” said a Biden campaign pollster granted anonymity to describe internal polling because they were not authorized to do so publicly.

The pollster said their research concluded that Trump’s conviction could effectively be used in a broader depiction of Trump as being self-centered and unwilling to take responsibility for his actions.

The first real barrage against convicted felon Donald Trump and the Republican political crime family and MAGA movement was a new pre-debate ad Time Magazine describes as

"In the courtroom we see Donald Trump for who he is,” the ad’s narrator states as black-and-white photos of Trump in court appear on screen. “He’s been convicted of 34 felonies, found liable for sexual assault, and committed financial fraud.”

The ad concludes by casting the election as a stark choice “between a convicted criminal who’s only out for himself and a president who’s fighting for your family.” It’s a theme the Biden campaign is hoping to sear into the minds of voters ahead of the June 27 presidential debate, particularly as Biden’s approval ratings last week reached the lowest point in his presidency.

The ad marks a strategic shift for Biden, who had so far largely avoided direct attacks on Trump’s legal troubles. Biden’s campaign began engaging on the topic by holding a press conference outside Trump’s courtroom in the final days of the trial.

Michael Tyler, communications director for the Biden campaign, described Trump in a statement on Monday as someone “who will do anything and harm anyone if it means more power and vengeance for Donald Trump.

This new campaign ad is part of a new 50-million-dollar ad blitz in the battleground states. The Biden campaign and its allies also held 1,600 events in the days before the first presidential debate.

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After Thursday's performance, it is clear the 2024 election will be a very close one. Trump leads President Biden in the key battleground states where a small number of voters will decide the election and the future of the country’s democracy. In all, the public opinion polls show that Trump’s felony conviction has marginally hurt him among “traditional” Republican voters as well as independents. However, it has little to no effect on his base voters and may have actually made him more popular among the MAGA political cultists. If fundraising is a measure of enthusiasm, then Trump’s MAGA people and other followers are energized by his felony conviction. Last month, Donald Trump outraised President Biden, 141 million to 85 million dollars.

In what is unbelievable and stunning for members of the news media and political class, a large percentage of the American public are still not paying close attention to the 2024 election and are willfully ignorant about Trump’s criminal cases and felony convictions.

Via email, I asked political scientist M. Steven Fish, who is the author of the new book “Comeback: Routing Trumpism, Reclaiming the Nation, and Restoring Democracy's Edge,” for his assessment of the new Donald Trump the Convicted Felon campaign ad:

The fact that Biden even did an ad on Trump’s felonies may be remarkable, since the pathologically risk-averse, poll-driven White House messaging team hesitated to even highlight Trump’s convictions. As Reuters reported: “They wanted to see polls and voter feedback before reacting strongly.” Apparently, their polls counseled reacting, but not strongly.

The White House calls the ad “Character Matters,” but it punts on contrasting the men’s prodigious differences in character. It does strongly characterize Trump as a criminal, but rather than really lean into casting Biden as the law-abiding, Constitution-protecting model of personal rectitude that he is, it follows the description of Trump’s feloniousness with a characterization of a president “who’s been working, lowering healthcare costs and making big corporations pay their fair share…a president who’s fighting for your family.” A spot that should be strictly about personal integrity, values, and devotion to law and order treats Biden as little more than an advocate for lower prescription drug prices and fairer tax policies.

Democratic Party operatives apparently don’t know another way. Day after day, they recite the same bromides about the same handful of policies in exactly the same way. There’s no evidence that this approach is moving the needle for Biden, but if the only thing you know how to do is prattle about policies, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result — the definition of insanity — is all that’s left as a course of action.

Republicans have very high message discipline where they echo and amplify their talking points and narrative in unison. By comparison, the Democrats and liberals and progressives are scattershot and very uncoordinated. Going forward, President Biden and the Democrats and their supporters in the news media and across the political space must use a consistent set of labels and themes when talking about President Trump and the Republicans and the 2024 Election.

Trump is a convicted felon. Trump is a coup plotter who hates democracy and is an enemy of freedom. Trump is a sexual assaulter as confirmed by a court of law. Donald Trump is channeling Hitler and hates America’s freedoms. Donald Trump supports America’s enemies such as Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump wants to take away a woman’s right to control her own body. Donald Trump is an aspiring dictator and a fascist. Whenever Donald Trump and the Republicans are mentioned, this is the language that should be used.

President Biden and his campaign are wise to frame the 2024 election as a battle over character and values and the future of the nation. But will Biden's campaign and their spokespeople and other messengers have the courage to follow through 100 percent all the time against Donald Trump and his movement or will they instead grow weak and defer to the silliness of “when they go low, we go high” that helped Trump take power in 2016? We will soon find out.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Campaign Commentary Crime Debate Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Elections 2024 Felon News Media President Biden