Biden targets Trump’s conviction as tensions ramp up ahead of debate

President Joe Biden is directly trying to exploit Donald Trump’s criminal conviction in a significant new campaign gambit ahead of their pivotal debate clash next week.

The Biden campaign on Monday debuted a new ad that will air in battleground states that blasts the presumptive Republican nominee as a felon who only cares about himself. The strategy appears to resolve a debate among Democrats about how overtly they should highlight the ex-president’s legal woes in a neck and neck White House race.

The new front in the 2024 campaign opened up after Trump sought to win votes among Black Americans, a traditional Democratic power base where the ex-president is trying to make inroads despite his tarnished personal history on race. This comes as Republicans embrace their presumptive nominee despite his conviction and bid to overturn the 2020 election result, going all in on Trump as they seek to win back the White House and the Senate and keep the House.

Biden’s new ad zeroes in directly on the guilty verdict in Trump’s hush money trial and his huge loss in a civil fraud case to strike a sharp contrast with Biden’s character. As the ex-president’s mug shot flashes on screen, a narrator says: “This election is between a convicted criminal who’s only out for himself and a president who is fighting for your family.” The ad marks the Biden campaign’s most explicit strategic use so far of Trump’s legal woes in a campaign message.

Biden campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu explained the thinking on CNN’s “News Central”: “What this ad is about is about showing the American people about the issue that’s going to decide this campaign: wisdom, courage, character.”

Trump’s campaign responded by blasting the hush money trial as “election interference” and highlighted polls showing the former president’s strength in swing states. “The contrast between President Trump’s strength and success versus Crooked Joe Biden’s weakness, failures, and dishonesty will be made clear on the debate stage next week,” Karoline Leavitt, a campaign spokesperson, wrote on X.

Biden, who flew directly from his second trip to Europe within a week to a glitzy Hollywood fundraiser in Los Angeles on Saturday, argued there that one of the “scariest” parts of a second Trump term would be a possibility that his rival could appoint more hardline conservative Supreme Court justices. Former President Barack Obama, who joined his former vice president at the fundraiser, meanwhile bemoaned the fact that Republicans are set to nominate a candidate who was “convicted by a jury of his peers on 34 counts.”

Candidates position themselves for first presidential debate

The campaign is intensifying ahead of 2024’s first presidential debate, on CNN on June 27, a potentially defining moment of a campaign that could see an ex-president beat the sitting president who ousted him from office for only the second time in history. The showdown in Atlanta will take place with 81-year-old Biden under extreme pressure to show he’s up to another four-year term amid pervasive voter concerns about his advanced years and following Trump’s incessant mockery of the visibly aging president’s mental acuity and physical state.

The ex-president’s constant ridiculing of Biden’s faculties may, however, be lowering expectations for Biden’s performance, raising the prospect that an energetic showing from the president could have a similar impact to his barnstorming State of the Union address this year, which temporarily quieted concerns over his age. The ex-president’s volatile behavior in recent days, including after he marked his 78th birthday on Friday, is prompting the Biden campaign to argue that Trump’s state of mind — as well as his attempt to crush American democracy four years ago — means he’s unfit for a return to office. Last week, the campaign described Trump as “more unhinged than ever before” after he returned to Capitol Hill for the first time since the January 6, 2021, mob attack to be embraced by House and Senate GOP lawmakers.

The first presidential debate of this campaign is unusually early, meaning it could give the president a chance to jolt a toss-up White House race that has been largely stable for months. Trump is polling strongly in key swing states. Biden is apparently clinging to a narrowing path through the countrywide electoral map to the 270 votes needed to win the presidency. The president is being hampered by the pain felt by many Americans over high prices and elevated interest rates that have made it hard to afford new homes and car loans — giving Trump an opening to conjure nostalgia about the pre-pandemic economy during his term in office.

CNN on Saturday announced new details for the debate, agreed to by both campaigns. The event will take place in a television studio rather than in front of a live audience. It will include two commercial breaks, during which campaign staff will be barred from interacting with their candidate. Both men agreed to appear at a uniform podium, and their positions will be determined by a coin flip. Microphones will be muted except when it’s a candidate’s turn to speak.

Biden is expected to head to Camp David later this week for an intense debate camp that will involve his former chief of staff, Ron Klain, who has been schooling Democratic candidates ahead of debates for decades. Trump held a policy forum with a group of advisers and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Eric Schmitt of Missouri when he was in Washington last week. His aides insisted that the ex-president would not necessarily engage in traditional debate prep but rely on interviews and rallies to hone his approach. However, Trump’s interviews, mostly with conservative media, are often full of softball questions. And he skipped all the GOP primary debates, so he might not be fully prepared when Biden gets in his grille.

Trump seeks to fracture Biden’s support among Black voters

In a race that will turn on a handful of swing states that could be decided by mere thousands of votes, any chunks either candidate can take from the other’s core constituency could be crucial. This is why Trump spent Saturday in Michigan, seeking to take advantage of signs of waning enthusiasm for Biden among Black voters. The former president unveiled his “Black Americans for Trump” coalition, which has the support of prominent Black Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Florida Rep. Byron Donalds. In a Friday interview with Semafor, Trump declared, “I’m not racist.” He added: “I have so many Black friends that if I were a racist, they wouldn’t be friends, they would know better than anybody, and fast,” he said.

Speaking at a predominately Black church in Detroit on Saturday, Trump falsely claimed that Black workers did far better in his first term than under Biden in an effort to leverage the cornerstone of his campaign — immigration — into an appeal to minorities he claims are losing their jobs to undocumented migrants. He is also highlighting Biden’s role as a senator in passing a 1990s crime bill that resulted in high rates of incarceration among Black citizens. According to CNN exit polls in 2020, Trump won about 1 in 10 Black voters. But a recent New York Times/Siena College poll found the ex-president winning more than 20% of Black voters in battleground states. If he can depress Biden’s advantage among the key demographic in cities like Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee, Trump could improve his chances of winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, states that form Biden’s best path to keep the White House.

The Biden campaign hit back at Trump’s appeal to a reliable core constituency that helped lift Biden to the presidency, highlighting controversies, including Trump’s demand for the death penalty against five youths who were wrongly convicted of an assault and rape in Central Park in the 1980s and his racist campaign over Obama’s birthplace. “We sure haven’t forgotten Trump repeatedly cozying up to white supremacists and demonizing Black communities to his political benefit — because that’s exactly what he’ll do if he wins a second term,” said Jasmine Harris, the director of Black media for the Biden campaign. Obama also took a shot at the presumptive GOP nominee when asked by late-night host Jimmy Kimmel at the Los Angeles fundraiser what he thought about Trump’s claims that he’d done more for Black people than any president in history. The former commander in chief replied: “One thing he did, for example, was make them feel even better about the first Black president.”

Biden slams ‘out of kilter’ Supreme Court majority

Political fundraisers are often closed. But the Biden campaign seemed keen to show the president in an informal setting with Obama and stars including Julia Roberts and George Clooney. The president stopped in Washington only to refuel Air Force One on the way home from the G7 summit in Italy before the event, which came days after his surviving son, Hunter Biden, was found guilty on gun charges following a trial in Delaware.

The president’s campaign on Sunday released a video from the fundraiser in which Biden referenced the controversy surrounding flags raised by Justice Samuel Alito’s wife that critics have warned are politically provocative. “If he’s reelected, he’s going to appoint two more flying flags upside down,” Biden said.

Asked by Kimmel whether he considered this the scariest part of a second Trump term, Biden responded, “It is one of the scariest parts.” The president added: “The Supreme Court has never been as out of kilter as it is today, I mean never.”

For years before the conservative Supreme Court majority built by Trump overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, Republicans put the destiny of the nation’s top court at the center of their presidential election campaigns. Biden gave the clearest indication yet this weekend that Democrats are now desperate to play on the same turf.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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