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Robert De Niro
The Biden team dispatched Robert De Niro to headline a surprise press conference outside Trump’s trial. Seth Wenig/AP

How Democrats Plan to Win the Spin Wars on the Trump Verdict

Veterans of the failed messaging campaigns around the Mueller report and the Comey letter are banking on Biden getting a better political result from Trump’s criminal case.

As the unprecedented New York criminal case against Donald Trump sits in the hands of the jury, Democratic veterans are thinking of ways this time might be different for them — as in, an actual political winner for President Joe Biden.

The release of the Mueller report, which contained damning information on Trump, quickly became most famous for exonerating him. The October 2016 letter to Congress from then-FBI Director James Comey regarding emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop didn’t actually contain very damaging stuff about Hillary Clinton, but as Clinton said in a recent interview, it’s remembered as a key reason voters chose to support Trump over her.

“The lesson is not to get snowed by GOP partisans playacting as unbiased legal eagles and push back forcefully and immediately on their spin,” said a former senior Senate Democratic aide who watched as the Mueller investigation’s findings became good news for Trump under relentless messaging from his allies.

“I have very little confidence Democrats will learn this lesson,” the former aide added.

The Biden campaign had only mentioned the trial in subtle jabs until Tuesday, part of a strategy that some Democrats told NOTUS in April was based on a theory of “when your opponent is busy painting themselves into a corner, don’t offer them a bigger brush.” That changed on the day of the trial’s closing arguments, with the Biden team dispatching noted New Yorker Robert De Niro to headline a surprise press conference outside the court building. A Biden aide said it was time to discuss “the stakes of the election” and shift focus to the run-up to a presidential debate scheduled for next month.

Asked why the Biden campaign decided to hold a press conference during the trial, effectively changing tactics, Communications Director Michael Tyler answered succinctly: “Because you all are here.”

The press conference, meant to insert Biden into the national conversation surrounding the former president’s trial, could foreshadow a ramped-up effort to address the case against Trump post-verdict.

They’re up against a famous hogger of airwaves, who on Wednesday, as jurors first started their deliberations, stepped up to the mics himself and said he was being railroaded, continuing the GOP’s efforts to politicize every aspect of the trial. “Mother Teresa could not beat these charges,” Trump said. “These charges are rigged. The whole thing is rigged.”

The first step will be figuring out how to actually message what matters. Lawyers use careful, caveated language that can be infuriating to political operatives who paint in black and white.

This has been a problem for Trump’s opponents.

A Clinton campaign veteran recalled the chaotic day the Comey letter dropped in the homestretch of the 2016 campaign. The first thought among those responsible for the campaign message was, “What the hell.” The second was figuring out what the vague letter meant. Then, “What are the facts that we actually know and can back up.”

Of course, the New York criminal case verdict could be far more cut and dry than Comey’s letter. The jury could find Trump guilty of all 34 charges he’s facing or not guilty of all of them. But those charges are based in complex laws around business recordkeeping, and the thought of a situation where the jury hangs or convicts on some charges and not on others is giving some with memories of Mueller’s complicated report heartburn.

Not all Biden supporters see the need for Biden to turn into a rapid-response machine to Trump’s legal woes. The trial is, after all, completely unprecedented, and a verdict will be huge news no matter what happens. The politics will follow the actual news, they say.

“Trump’s civil and criminal issues are primarily relevant because the fact that he’s facing them at all reinforces the rule of law still applies to everyone in America,” Rep. Eric Swalwell told NOTUS in a text. “Politically they animate that this upcoming election is about the difference between corruption and character. I’m betting that the American people like Joe Biden as the character candidate.”

Swalwell’s take mimics that of the Biden campaign. The De Niro presser was about Trump as a president and as a person, not only as a criminal defendant. The debate in June and a huge push launched Wednesday to reanimate Biden’s support among Black voters are indications that whatever the jury decides, the Biden campaign will continue with its existing Trump messaging.

For some of the Democratic veterans of the recent legal spin wars looking on at the next one fast approaching, the Biden campaign effort to engage in the public show of Trump on trial while still keeping a distance from the trial itself is the right move.

“The campaign doesn’t actually need to say or do much of anything because there’ll be so many people with something to say, including Trump himself,” said Karen Finney, a former Clinton campaign messaging strategist.

Finney, who watched as the Comey letter helped create the election where Clinton won more votes but not the White House, said the messaging challenge is not so much what’s in the verdict but explaining why it matters to the American electorate.

“The bigger message is, Donald Trump will always put himself over you, over the best interests of you, your family, your community, your lives, this country,” she said. “And to me that’s what the case showed, right?”

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Jasmine Wright are reporters at NOTUS.