Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from Allie Bice.
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Is the White House annoyed about the return of the DONALD TRUMP circus? Of the wall-to-wall live coverage by cable networks, with their aerial images of the former president’s motorcade and airplane leaving south Florida on Monday — instead of airing President JOE BIDEN‘s economic speech in Minnesota? Or the breathless commentary and incessant speculation from anchors and pundits?
And also no.
It’s annoying because, well, it’s annoying. And for some in the White House, not to mention numerous online critics, it’s also proof of how American media, and in particular cable networks that have seen their ratings dip since Biden took office, still thirst for the chaos and controversy the former president creates.
Press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE fielded about a dozen questions on Trump’s arrest during Tuesday’s briefing, where she made clear that the White House had nothing to say.
“It’s an ongoing case, so we’re just not going to comment on the case specifically itself,” she said. “The president is going to focus on the American people like he does every day. This is not something that is a focus for him.”
But Jean-Pierre acknowledged that the Trump news was unavoidable, playing out, she said, “on a daily basis for hours and hours” on many networks with front-row briefing room seats. The arraignment of an indicted ex-president is a watershed in the nation’s history, and even those who find it circus-like will still watch.
“Obviously [Biden] will catch part of the news when he has a moment to catch up on the news of the day,” she said before repeating: “But this is not his focus for today. Our focus right now is on the American people.”
During his lone public event Tuesday, a meeting with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Biden did not respond to a question about Trump’s arraignment. And the White House is offering little this week in the way of counter-programming. Biden’s light schedule included Monday’s economic speech and Tuesday’s meeting but there is nothing listed yet on his public Wednesday schedule — ahead of Thursday’s planned departure for Camp David, where he will spend Easter weekend.
Meanwhile, at the White House… pic.twitter.com/3L2fI3DVOm
— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) April 4, 2023
The Trump arraignment raises familiar questions for the Biden White House: How much to talk about your opponent’s foibles? How valuable is media coverage when competing against Trump? And does Biden’s brand work if he’s seen, predominantly, as boring?
ERIC SCHULTZ, a former deputy press secretary in the Obama White House, suggested that the administration could be rightly annoyed by all the coverage and simultaneously unbothered by the media’s near total focus on the GOP’s leading 2024 presidential hopeful being charged with 34 felony counts in a Manhattan courtroom.
“The number of reporters who call me and say, ‘Isn’t Biden going to get drowned out?’ is the same number of reporters who are breathlessly covering Donald Trump nonstop. So at some point, some self-reflection may be in order,” Schultz said.
But, he added, Trump’s arraignment epitomizes “the same dumpster fire we’ve seen from Republicans for the last seven years” and offers “an ideal contrast” for Democrats.
“This is the exact picture and story that voters rejected in the last three cycles in favor of Democrats doing their jobs,” he continued. “Biden is not going to get as much attention as his successor does for getting indicted, but the important thing is that President Biden is doing his job. And as long as that’s the takeaway, he doesn’t need wall-to-wall coverage.”
The asymmetrical media coverage may ultimately work to Biden’s advantage. His visit on Monday to a power generation facility in Cummins, Minn., didn’t get national headlines but it generated lots of local coverage.
Still, in the near term, the return to obsessive Trump coverage meant that other major stories — Finland’s accession to NATO, for one — were largely ignored.
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This one is from Allie. Which president is the only one to be born in New Jersey?
(Answer at bottom.)
LONG LIVE THE KING: The president spoke with KING CHARLES III today, according to the White House. The readout of the call included the usual non-informative stuff: he underscored “the strength of the relationship between our countries and the friendship between our peoples.” But we also got confirmation that while the president will not attend the king’s upcoming Coronation, first lady JILL BIDEN will be going on behalf of the U.S.
FINLAND JOINS NATO: Finland’s blue and white flag was raised Tuesday outside of NATO’s Brussels headquarters for the first time as the alliance welcomed its 31st member nation. The historic moment, which immediately doubled Russia’s border with the world’s largest security alliance, dealt “a major blow to President VLADIMIR PUTIN with a historic realignment of Europe’s post-Cold War security landscape triggered by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine,” the AP’s LORNE COOK and MATTHEW LEE wrote.
Biden, in a statement, said Putin’s attempt to weaken NATO has backfired. He declared the expanding alliance to be “more united than ever” and urged Turkey and Hungary to sign off on Sweden’s NATO membership “without delay.”
AND PROUD WE ARE OF ALL OF THEM: The White House Correspondents’ Association announced its crop of 2023 award winners on Tuesday. The group of achievers were led by MATT VISER of the Washington Post, who won the Aldo Beckman Award for Overall Excellence (here’s hoping there’s a good montage of his Bali pics at the dinner in a few weeks). JEFF MASON of Reuters and CNN’S PHIL MATTINGLY won the print and broadcast awards, respectively, for excellence under deadline pressure. (Unlike Ohio State’s football team, Mattingly can perform in the clutch). The NYT’s DOUG MILLS won the award for excellence from visual journalists for an image of Biden emerging from the White House to celebrate the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.
And our own JOSH GERSTEIN and ALEX WARD won the Katharine Graham Award for Courage and Accountability for their scoop of last year’s Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. Share the wealth, guys.
Congratulations to all!
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: This WaPo opinion piece by CATHERINE RAMPELL about how Republicans don’t seem to have the details of their budget proposal figured out: “How do you negotiate with someone who has no idea what they want? That’s the challenge for Biden as Republicans say he must (A) satisfy their fiscal demands before they’ll raise the debt limit; even though they (B) can’t decide what those demands actually are; and they (C) have zero credibility for delivering 218 House votes for whatever those demands eventually turn out to be.” White House deputy press secretary ANDREW BATES tweeted out the piece.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This column from USA Today’s NANCY ARMOUR blasting first lady Jill Biden over wanting to invite The University of Iowa women’s basketball squad to the White House alongside the team that defeated them in Sunday’s NCAA championship final: Louisiana State. The comment, Armour wrote, was “insulting” to both teams and shockingly paternalistic. It also came amid an online uproar with clear racial undertones after some criticized LSU’s ANGEL REESE for taunting Iowa’s CAITLIN CLARK in the game’s waning moments, ignoring that Clark herself is a notorious trash-talker who did the same taunt. “It’s amazing that Biden herself didn’t recognize this,” Armour wrote. “Or that the people around her didn’t tell her what a bad idea this was.”
The unforced error drew blowback, even from some Democrats. Rep. JAMAAL BOWMAN (D-N.Y.) took to Twitter to say “that’s not how it works. LSU won. LSU comes to the White House. Iowa understands this and would most definitely respectfully decline the invitation.” In an interview Tuesday with ESPN, Clark threw cold water on the idea that she and her teammates would want to join LSU. “I don’t think runner-ups usually go to the White House,” Clark said. “I think LSU should enjoy that moment for them.”
AND THEN, THE CLEAN-UP: On Tuesday, VANESSA VALDIVIA, the first lady’s press secretary, tweeted that Biden’s remarks were intended to “applaud the historic game and all women athletes” and that the first lady “looks forward to celebrating the LSU Tigers on their championship win at the White House.”
THAT OTHER PRESIDENTIAL CONTROVERSY: KATHY CHUNG, a former executive assistant for Biden, was interviewed Tuesday by the House Oversight Committee “as part of its investigation into classified documents found at Biden’s home & office,” CNN’s ALAYNA TREENE reports.
PERSONNEL MOVES: NORMAN ELLIS is now a legislative assistant in the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House. He most recently was a presidential writer in the Office of Presidential Correspondence.
SPENDING PLAN INCOMING: Treasury Secretary JANET YELLEN said the department this week will unveil how the IRS will spend the $80 billion Democrats allocated to the agency last year, our BRIAN FALER and BENJAMIN GUGGENHEIM report for Pro subscribers. The plan will likely “take center stage in Washington’s tax fights with Republicans sure to take a microscope to politically touchy questions like how many tax auditors the agency intends to hire,” the pair writes.
NOT MUCH TO SHOW FOR…YET: House Republicans took the majority with promises to investigate Biden and Democrats, but they haven’t gotten far in their efforts, leaving some lawmakers frustrated, our JORDAIN CARNEY reports. Many Republicans are focused on more urgent issues like the banking crisis and debt ceiling negotiations, over matters related to the president.
Still, others have sent an array of letters, issued subpoenas and initial reports and held a handful of hearings. “All of us hear from constituents that they’re very anxious for results,” said Rep. MIKE JOHNSON (R-La.). “I think some people get anxious because they just want immediate results.”
KEEPING THE NATURAL GAS COMING: The Biden administration Tuesday vowed to keep sending large supplies of liquefied natural gas to the EU, as the region stops pulling from Russia’s energy resources, POLITICO Europe’s FEDERICA DI SARIO and ANTONIA ZIMMERMANN report. “I believe this is not a temporary situation, but marks a structural change in Europe’s energy outlook and trade orientation,” said European Energy Commissioner KADRI SIMSON.
MORE AID TO UKRAINE: The U.S. plans to send Ukraine “about $500 million in ammunition and equipment and will spend more than $2 billion to buy an array of munitions, radar and other weapons in the future,” AP’s LOLITA C. BALDOR and MATTHEW LEE report. Though the aid has yet to be announced, it’s the latest show of U.S. support to Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian invasion.
A big mayoral run-off election in Chicago will be decided Tuesday night, with voters set to choose between Cook County Commissioner BRANDON JOHNSON and former Chicago Public Schools CEO PAUL VALLAS. Biden has stayed out of the race, opting not to endorse either candidate. He’s also yet to settle on a host city for next year’s DNC convention, a choice that comes down to Chicago, Atlanta or New York City.
Eli may also be watching mayoral election results in Denver, where 16 candidates are running to succeed the term-limited MICHAEL HANCOCK in a race that’s almost certainly headed to a run-off.
‘We’ve seen this story before’: Dems grow anxious of a Trump ’16 redux (POLITICO’s Jonathan Lemire and Holly Otterbein)
Lawyers for Evan Gershkovich Seek to Visit Journalist Jailed in Moscow (WSJ’s Ann M. Simmons)
How Joe Biden’s oil bet went sideways (Quartz’s Tim Fernholz)
GROVER CLEVELAND, who served as both the 22nd and 24th president, was born in Caldwell, N.J. in 1837, the only president to be born in the state, according to the New Jersey government’s website.
A CALL OUT — Do you think you have a harder trivia question? Send us your best one about the presidents with a citation and we may feature it.
Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein.
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