Opinion: How Robert De Niro’s advocacy for Biden backfired

Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a CNN senior political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Robert De Niro has brilliantly played many roles in his long and storied acting career. He might, on second thought, have turned down the one for which he was cast on Tuesday.

For more than five weeks, President Joe Biden had mostly avoided plunging into the reality show that has been Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial in Manhattan. Biden did not want to feed Trump’s feverish charge that he was the cause of the former president’s myriad legal problems.

Even as a parade of Republican applicants, supplicants and attention addicts has shown up at the criminal court building in lower Manhattan to pledge their fealty to Trump, the White House has remained (mostly) silent, and prominent Democrats have stayed away. Recently Biden has been inserting humorous asides about the trial. “I’ve had a great stretch since the State of the Union, but Donald has had a few rough days lately. You might call it ‘stormy weather,’” he dad-joked at the White House Correspondents Dinner last month.

But Biden and his campaign has mostly gone for the capillary, not the jugular.

Until Tuesday, that is. In the final hours before the jury would consider Trump’s fate, the Biden campaign decided to crank up De Niro and two of the police officers attacked by an insurrectionist mob on January 6, 2021 to appear outside the courthouse and engage the phalanx of media there.

The stated goal was to highlight Trump’s trespasses on democracy and general unfitness for office, but the scene quickly devolved into a shouting match between De Niro and a small crowd of hecklers who roasted him as he roasted Trump. Great fodder for “Saturday Night Live,” but not necessarily the campaign.

And when the feisty actor was asked if he thought Trump is guilty of the 34 charges the jury would soon be considering inside (and for which Trump pleaded not guilty), De Niro happily complied. “The fact is whether he’s acquitted, whether it’s hung jury, whatever it is, he is guilty, and we all know it,” he said.

Fingers were pointed between De Niro and the Trump-loving hecklers. F-bombs flew. And those images and De Niro’s impulse to plunge into the legal fray hours before the case would go to the jury became the story.

Who thought this was a good idea?

I love De Niro’s work and agree with many of his comments. But given the arm’s length distance the White House has kept from the whole sordid mess at 100 Centre Street, they seemed grossly ill-timed. (It’s also a little bewildering why Team Biden, struggling with younger voters, cast De Niro as its point man here. After all, nothing speaks to Gen Z more than yet another octogenarian.)

Navigating Trump’s legal thicket has been a challenge for Biden from the start. But Tuesday’s odd exhibition was a head-spinning lurch from the arm’s length, above-the-fray position he has struck to date. It came as the Biden campaign began running an ominous ad, narrated by De Niro, going right at Trump’s trials, character and autocratic impulses, and at a time when anxious Democrats ponder battleground state polls marginally tilted in Trump’s favor.

Are these attacks designed to steel the spines of the already converted or to win over a small swath of swing voters sufficient to turn the tide?

Trump’s legal problems, anti-democratic impulses and character deficiencies may already be baked in the cake, and polls cite issues closer to home, like the cost of living and abortion rights as more motivational to voters who are holding out.

Maybe Biden has chosen this moment in anticipation of a verdict to shift emphasis and return to other themes once Trump is convicted or acquitted. But time is running short for the campaign to develop a simple, coherent and resonant message that will define the race on the president’s terms.

Predictably, the Trump campaign jumped all over Tuesday’s events, accusing the Biden campaign of desperation and jury tampering. “He needs attention because it’s been a while since he cranked out a good movie,” said Donald Trump Jr., who apparently missed “Killers of the Flower Moon.” “The fact that they are holding a rally right across the street from this very witch hunt, right across the street, tells us exactly what we all knew all along, which is that it is a political persecution,” added Trump, Jr.

The Trumps have to get their stories straight. Either Biden is a bumbling, senile incompetent or the diabolical mastermind of a far-flung series of federal and state indictments and civil suits against his rival. He may be neither, but he can’t be both.

That said, whoever at Biden HQ directed De Niro’s performance Tuesday probably should have left it on the cutting room floor.

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