Sat, November 27, 2021

in-focus

Biden plows ahead on pandemic agenda - with an eye on Trump's trial


WASHINGTON - White House aides have gone to great lengths this week to emphasize that President Joe Biden is paying minimal attention, if any, to the fiery and harrowing trial of his predecessor unfolding down the street at the Capitol.

But as Biden on Thursday assiduously attended to his agenda - visiting the National Institues of Health for a vaccine announcement, talking with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg - he let slip that he has at least one eye on the trial of former president Donald Trump.

Biden said he'd seen some of the presentation made by Democratic impeachment managers the day before, though not in real time. Their evidence featured graphic video of beatings, a shooting and the defacing of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, as well as new information about how close some senators had come to being overrun by the rioters who shouted "Fight For Trump" as they stormed the halls of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

"I, like other Americans, watched the news," Biden said on Thursday.

He suggested the video evidence, including previously unseen footage of rioters brutally assaulting police officers, could be powerful enough to move some Republican senators toward convicting Trump.

"My guess is some minds may have been changed, but I don't know," Biden said.

For his official duties, Biden spent Thursday at NIH to visit the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory there and to talk about the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. In the morning, he hosted Buttigieg by video, along with a bipartisan group of senators in person, to talk about the nation's crumbling bridges and roads.

"I really, honest to God, never have thought of infrastructure as being a partisan issue," Biden told reporters. "It's about, I mean, a lot of bridges in West Virginia, a lot of dangerous spots along Route 9, in terms of Cancer Alley. A lot of places where we're having problems all across the country."

The focus on practical problem-solving is intentional. The trial of the former president taking place in the Senate, no matter how consequential for the country, distracts from the work of the new president. Biden's team believes his political success is directly tied to showing concrete results, especially on the pandemic and the economy.

A 100-day clock is ticking on a wide range of campaign pledges, but almost everything Biden has done this week was overshadowed by the emotions and revelations of the impeachment trial. Cable television stations opted for wall-to-wall coverage of the trial over Biden's official appearances or the White House daily press briefing.

Yet the president pushed ahead with his sometimes dry appearances. "My job is to deal with the promises I made. And we all know we have to move on. Today, it's about jobs and infrastructure," Biden told reporters.

The split screen between the new president and the old continued throughout the day.

As Biden began a late-afternoon tour of the viral pathogenesis lab, House impeachment managers were wrapping up their case against Trump.

As Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., closed the Senate proceedings for the day and senators prepared for Trump's defense on Friday, reporters traveling with Biden watched as he and Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease specialist, got an update from scientists on the vaccine effort.

Biden made news, confirming a report in The Washington Post that the government would purchase 200 million additional vaccine doses, in remarks carried live by C-SPAN but apparently not elsewhere.

"We've now purchased enough vaccine supply to vaccinate all Americans," Biden said as part of an emotional address in which he thanked scientists and medical professionals, adding that his administration's effort to get ahead of the virus had been stymied by failures of the Trump team.

The visit was Biden's third to a federal agency and the first directly linked to the most important short-term objective for his new administration - turning the corner on a pandemic that has killed more than 470,000 Americans.

"With every moment of despair this past year, you and all the heroes and heroines on the front lines of it and the frontiers of this pandemic remind us who we are," Biden said. "We are America. We never give up. We never give in. We give back, and we follow the science and find the answers."

With travel to other parts of the country limited by the pandemic, Biden's short trips outside the White House have become part of a strategy to contrast the new president with his predecessor.

Biden's call to patriotism on behalf of a common good came shortly after the House impeachment managers had played - and replayed - Trump's call to supporters on Jan. 6 to "fight like hell" to overturn the 2020 election results.

Trump sidelined diplomacy and retaliated against diplomats; Biden went to the State Department last week to thank them. Trump threatened to upend American alliances in Asia; Biden went to the Pentagon on Wednesday to thank U.S. troops and recommit to traditional alliances.

Trump's lawyers have a few days to mount a defense, and the trial is expected to conclude sometime next week. White House advisers say they welcome the chance to turn the page, whatever the outcome. Trump appears to have enough support among Republicans to avoid conviction.

As momentum grew to impeach Trump, some Democrats worried that a drawn-out proceeding would make it harder for Biden to push through his agenda in the critical early weeks of his presidency. The result, a compromise of sorts, has been a fast-moving trial that Biden is trying to navigate around, stressing that the Senate should do as it likes while he focuses on the country's problems.

For days, White House press secretary Jen Psaki and other aides had politely brushed aside questions about the new president's views and viewing habits when it came to the trial.

Psaki has said Biden was not likely to watch the proceedings live nor receive regular updates. Biden, who served more than three decades in the Senate, would leave it to that body to reach a verdict without his imprimatur, she said.

On Thursday, Psaki took questions on a range of issues, from a computer chip shortage to the difficulties of reopening schools during the pandemic. Elsewhere, the White House announced the first meeting of the National Climate Task Force and released a list of sanctions targets in Myanmar.

Psaki was asked to elaborate on Biden's comments on his reaction to the trial.

Anyone watching "found it harrowing and deeply disturbing," Psaki said. "And, you know, that's certainly how the president felt when he watched it, when he watched some of the clips."

She added that Biden had been "shocked and saddened" by the assault on the Capitol, where he has spent much of his political life, and that the video was a powerful reminder of what Biden called an attack on American democracy.

But when asked whether that meant Biden thinks Trump should be convicted, Psaki was back on message.

"He's not on the jury. He's not in the Senate. He's - his role is to be president of the United States," she said.

Published : February 12, 2021

By : The Washington Post Anne Gearan