The Biden Camp Has a Plan for Trump’s Trial: Silent Trolling

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

For at least the next two months, Donald Trump is stuck in a Manhattan courtroom as one of the most embarrassing stories of his life unfolds, likely accompanied by myriad unflattering visuals and detailed accounts of not only philandering, but hush money payments along with catch-and-kill schemes.

Yet his 2024 election opponent can’t, or at least really doesn’t want to, seize upon the salacious details that could otherwise be highly damaging in the context of a presidential campaign.

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While it may seem paradoxical at first, President Joe Biden’s campaign believes the Stormy Daniels hush money case can help them—as long as they don’t talk about it at any length.

The Biden campaign is keen to avoid playing into Trump’s hands by directly communicating on details of the case, which would add ammunition to the former president’s repeated claims that the president and his allies are using this case to damage him politically.

But the president’s team is well aware that the fundamental optics of Biden campaigning and traveling the country while Trump pouts in court are powerful.

“The campaign welcomes the split screen,” a Biden aide told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to discuss sensitive internal conversations on the case.

When and where, exactly, the Biden campaign plans to hit Trump during the trial is more art than science—but it’s something the president’s longtime advisers have thought about a lot.

“Strategically, what they’re doing is picking their spots,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s 2020 deputy campaign manager, told The Daily Beast.

Bedingfield, who was also the White House communications director from Biden’s inauguration until March 2023, described the Biden 2024 team as seeing “an open lane” with Trump in court. She said the Biden campaign will use a “strategic deployment” of methods to rattle the former president, and getting into the details of the hush money case is not one of them.

Demonstrators protest outside of Manhattan Criminal Court as former US President Donald Trump attends the first day of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, in New York City on April 15, 2024.

Demonstrators protest outside of Manhattan Criminal Court as Trump attends the first day of his trial in New York City on April 15.

ADAM GRAY/AFP via Getty Images

“Rather than get sucked into a back-and-forth with Donald Trump, in the gutter, about the ins and outs of a criminal hush money trial that ultimately doesn’t have a whole lot of impact on the lives of Americans around the country,” Bedingfield said, “the Biden campaign has an opportunity for a crystal clear contrast on who is going to help you, who has a vision for his second term, and what’s that going to mean for you.”

Painting Trump as an out-of-touch billionaire more preoccupied with his legal bills—and getting donors to pay for them—than any forward-looking policies, the Biden campaign has determined, is the fight they’d prefer to pick.

Trump may also very well be a rich guy who had an affair with a porn star and paid for a scheme to keep the bad PR under wraps right after the Access Hollywood tape came out just days ahead of the 2016 election.

Just don’t expect Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, or any of the other major campaign surrogates to talk about it directly. Wall-to-wall media coverage will put the case on voters’ radars, as will efforts from a loose group of pro-Biden social media influencers, like Ron Filipkowski, who is known for sharing video clips of Trump and GOP politicians with his 900,000 followers on X.

He pointed to former Playboy model Karen McDougall’s upcoming testimony as an example where, “in a normal campaign,” what she’d have to say about having “a yearlong affair with Donald Trump, which occurred the entire time Melania was pregnant,” would be pure gold for a rival campaign.

But given the stakes for democracy in a Biden-Trump rematch, Filipkowski said, even he’s thinking differently about how to handle the trial while informally filling the breach for the Biden campaign when it comes to going more tit for tat with Trumpworld online.

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Jim Messina, who ran Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, said the Biden team is making the right play by letting Trump “dig his own grave here.”

“It’s smart for the campaign to focus on the issues that matter to voters and not give any fodder to the MAGA argument that this trial is political,” Messina told The Daily Beast in an email. “It’s not, it’s about Trump being held accountable for paying off a porn star he cheated on his wife with—with bonus points for him showing off he’s not up for the job by falling asleep during the trial."

For a Biden 2024 operation that has been much more eager to troll and taunt Trump compared to the 2020 race, the buttoned-down approach to the former president’s criminal trial may represent a return to their comfort zone.

Back in 2020 and early in his administration, Biden went great lengths to avoid attacking Trump directly. Now, the president’s campaign routinely sends out taunting press releases giving their opponent cheekily Trumpian nicknames like “Broke Don.”

The Biden campaign’s decision to go for a lighter touch on the hush money case is also the result of half a decade’s worth of dealing with Trump’s psyche and his ability to command attention, dictate news cycles, and muddy the waters.

“He was never going to be a gratuitous name caller,” Bedingfield said of her former boss. But the Biden team has come to intimately know “what gets under Donald Trump’s skin,” and she pointed to the campaign’s unique choice of words in a recent press release as an example of how they’re threading the needle.

One Biden campaign blast on abortion was titled “Wake Up Donald: After Stormy Abortion Ban Coverage, Trump Poll Memo Attempts to Hush Panic”—a not-so-subtle allusion to Trump falling asleep in court.

“They used language that you can imagine probably riles Trump up,” Bedingfield said, “but they did it in a way that drove the message to a substantive issue that we know motivates voters to turn out for Democrats.”

Other closely allied Democrats are fully willing to get in the gutter with Trumpworld online, however.

The campaign has pro-Biden influencers on their side, like Filipkowski, a longtime Florida attorney and Republican who became a Democrat after Jan. 6 and began He called the problem facing the Biden campaign “a catch-22” when it comes to avoiding playing into Trump’s hands.

“Obviously, the frustrating thing is no cameras in the courtroom,” Filipkowski told The Daily Beast. He met with the Biden White House before this year’s State of the Union address, but said he has not gotten any guidance from the campaign on how best to fight in the clip wars.

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Instead of courtroom footage, Filipkowski said he’s looking for key moments shared by reporters in the room as well as potentially viral cable news depictions of the trial.

“It’s a frustrating conundrum, really,” Filipkowski said of how he’s planning on handling the salacious material to come in the trial, “because on the one hand, there’s gonna be a lot of stuff that could come out in this trial that could really hurt Trump politically.”

Even if Filipkowski is not limited the way the Biden campaign is, when it comes to countering the Trump campaign online—whether through a fact check or an unflattering video clip—he said he can still feel outmatched at times.

“I feel like sometimes I’m like the one guy with the finger in the dike,” Filipkowski said, “or standing in the breach holding off these barbarian hordes.”

But Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin said there’s no incentive for the Biden campaign to fully go there on the hush money case. Instead, he said, “the imperative for Biden is drawing a contrast for voters between how he has governed and would govern and how Donald Trump his record as president and how he would act in a second term.”

Given how much voters have been bombarded with Trump’s myriad scandals and controversies, there’s consensus among Democrats that Biden needs to keep focused on policy to remind voters what they could be in for if the former president wins in November.

“Voters already dislike Donald Trump personally,” Schwerin said, “but their memory of his policies needs to be refreshed.”

The Biden aide who spoke to The Daily Beast said the next two months will be a prime example of how the campaign plans to pick its battles and keep the focus on policy.

Their goal is to get Biden and Harris on the road as much as possible in this crucial stretch where Trump will be largely off the trail, confined to a Manhattan courtroom four days a week.

The main messaging focus will be on the economy and abortion, according to the Biden campaign. The Biden aide said the next two months provide “a huge benefit” for the president’s re-election campaign, with Trump ceding the campaign trail every day except Wednesdays and weekends.

Biden getting face time with voters in key battleground states while Trump tries to squeeze fundraisers in between court dates will be “a point of contrast to where we've seen Trump spend a lot of his time, which is behind closed doors with his billionaire donors,” the aide said.

When asked about how they’ll deal with the hush money case specifically in striking that contrast, the Biden staffer asked to speak off the record.

“We are engaging with Trump in a specific way and picking the fight that drive our message on the issues that voters care about,” the aide said.

There’s also the art of not getting in the way of Trump doing some of the work for them, Schwerin argued.

“Donald Trump is doing enough damage to himself falling asleep in his own criminal trial.”

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