Biden team resorts to Trump's "Access Hollywood" playbook as Democrats signal looming revolt

Biden aides are reportedly modeling their actions on Trump's response to the tape that almost killed his candidacy

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published July 11, 2024 11:15AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

If you are busy attacking George Clooney as an out-of-touch Hollywood elite, you are either a bog-standard Republican politician or a Democrat on track to lose the White House.

On Wednesday, the actor — who just weeks earlier helped President Joe Biden raise $30 million for his re-election campaign — came out with what he described as “devastating” news: The 81-year-old man who looked confused and sounded incoherent for much of his 90-minute quarrel with Donald Trump last month was the same man — a shell of his former self — that Clooney had encountered at a fundraiser in Hollywood.

“He wasn’t even the Joe Biden of 2020,” Clooney wrote. “He was the same man we all witnessed at the debate.”

Clooney is not the only one to have encountered the debate version of Biden: The president’s unscripted appearances since June 27 — the date his campaign originally said would “reset” the race, reminding Americans that Biden is normal while Trump is nuts — have been only slightly less disastrous. The Democratic candidate’s appearance on ABC convinced his interviewer, George Stephanopoulos, that he’s not fit to serve until January 2029.

After acknowledging there were good-faith concerns about the president’s ability to serve another 4.5 years, the Biden campaign quickly affected a tone of confident defiance, instructing congressional Democrats to get in line and accept his nomination as a done deal (even if the convention is more than a month away). Time magazine reported Wednesday that aides to the president are looking to the enemy, one Mr. Trump, and consciously modeling their actions on his response to the “Access Hollywood” tape, the idea being that the campaign can overcome a disaster by basically pretending — like a recorded boast of sexual assault — that it never happened.

So, then, they need to attack an ally who has lost faith and embraced treason. Speaking to CNN, a Biden campaign official dropped a bombshell: Clooney (low energy, washed up) left the Hollywood fundraiser hours before Biden did. Allies of the president then told Politico that the actor (by the way, the original “Solaris” was better) had “spent only an hour or so with Biden at the fundraiser,” which had been “planned around the actor’s schedule” and required a red-eye flight.

Jet leg: That’s why Biden did so poorly at the debate (12 days after landing ), came off as disturbingly unfit to a loyalist who helped him raise tens of millions of dollars, and why, presumably, he accidentally told a radio host, in a scripted appearance earlier this month, that he was the “first Black woman to serve with a Black president.”

Biden’s inner circle may believe that denial is a winning strategy. Their hope at this point, per Politico, is that people, especially journalists, will stop paying as much attention to the president once the Republican National Convention begins on Monday. In other words, the Biden 2024 campaign strategy currently consists of hoping that the president receives less free media going forward, even as its own coffers deplete because donors — like Clooney, feeling disrespected, their concerns ignored and dismissed as those of “elites,” even as a majority of Democratic voters now want Biden gone — have stopped giving.

“The money has absolutely shut off,” a source close to Biden’s campaign told NBC News this week.

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In a more perfect world, perhaps a Democratic candidate would not need money to win an election and the American electorate would care more about decency, and the team a president puts together, than whether or not a candidate will literally be alive when their term in office is due to end. But that’s the predicament Democrats face: the candidate at the top of the ticket is dragging the rest of them down and forcing his surrogates to lie.

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., tells voters she has “complete confidence” in Biden’s ability to serve until he is 86, for example, it comes across as decidedly untrue. Reports that Democrats have an almost universal doubt in the president’s abilities — expressed in private out of either loyalty, a hope that the president takes the hints and gets out, or simple, calculating cowardice — suggest they know this, but the president’s insistence on staying in the race is forcing them to do the impossible: pretend the debate did not fatally undermine Biden’s claim that he can keep doing this.

The panic is not limited to elites but broadly shared by those on the ground speaking to voters who can’t easily be persuaded to forget what they saw. It also does not stem simply from national polling — which as of Thursday morning showed Biden losing to Trump by just 2.2%, on average, according to 538 — but by surveys, internal and public, showing other Democrats outperforming the top of the ticket, especially in battleground states that must remain blue if Trump is to be prevented from winning a second term.

It’s also a product of time, and the knowledge that it will not be any kinder to Biden in the months ahead. The June debate was supposed to be what put Biden in front, not further behind a man who has been convicted of 34 felonies and found liable for rape after inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Is anyone looking forward to the second one, slated for September?

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“The White House, in the time since that disastrous debate, I think, has done nothing to really demonstrate that they have a plan to win this election,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., told CNN earlier this week. His colleague, Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., then appealed to the president’s sense of patriotism, and his duty to the American people, in an appeal for him to be drop out: “We need him to put us first, as he has done before. I urge him to do it now.”

Those still firmly in the Biden camp may take comfort in the fact that those calling for the president to quit, publicly, are still a small minority of elected Democrats. But consider, again, Whitmer, who was completely confident on Tuesday. By Wednesday night? She was telling CNN that, you know what, actually, “I don’t think it would hurt” for Biden to get his cognition tested.

Biden has so far rejected calls to undergo a cognitive test just as defiantly as he’s resisted calls to step aside. A solid performance at his NATO press conference may reassure those who have not already lost faith that he does not need to heed either demand, but as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted at Wednesday on MSNBC, those biting their tongue out of respect for the president may be readying for an open revolt.

“Let’s just hold off,” she said, urging her colleagues to stop whatever they’re planning to do until after the NATO summit. That means the dam, currently fortified by deference to the president and a belief that he will ultimately decide to quit the race, could break as soon as Friday. If Biden doesn't step aside, Democrats may well feel the need to give him a shove.

By Charles R. Davis

Charles R. Davis is Salon's deputy news editor. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Columbia Journalism Review.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Analysis George Clooney Gretchen Whitmer Joe Biden Michael Bennet Nancy Pelosi Peter Welch