President Biden has kept his distance from the explosive hearings led by the committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, wary of politicizing the issue as the panel lays out his predecessor’s role in triggering the riots.
Biden has barely commented on the panel’s findings and in some instances has been occupied by foreign or domestic trips when the committee has held public hearings. The effect has been a split-screen of sorts in Washington.
The White House wants to avoid politicizing what it has repeatedly stressed is an independent investigation into the events on Jan. 6, according to a source familiar with the White House’s thinking.
Doug Jones, who served in the White House to shepherd through Biden’s nomination of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, said the White House doesn’t want to lend any fuel to efforts by Republicans to portray the investigation as a partisan exercise.
“Because of that, I think, if the president was to weigh in in any way, it would just kind of add a little fuel to the fire from the other side, and it’s not necessary,” Jones said.
The fact that the probe could lead to more criminal investigations or charges also weighs on Biden’s decision to avoid discussing the hearings in public.
“I know that the president believes very strongly that he should not weigh in and express opinions about possible criminal violations,” Jones said.
To be sure, West Wing aides are keeping an eye on the hearings. Jones noted, for instance, that officials are likely to be watching closely the developments with respect to the deletion of Secret Service text messages reportedly now subject to a criminal inquiry.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday that Biden, who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, caught parts of Thursday’s hearing. She also said there is no plan for the president to address the hearings, despite an earlier report from NBC News that was the case.
“The president believes that it was a very dark day,” Jean-Pierre said. “He supports the Jan. 6 committee, he believes that they are doing important work, and he really believes that the American people should be watching and paying attention.”
When the first public hearing took place last month, Jean-Pierre said that Biden would be kept abreast of the developments as he traveled to Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas.
Biden made brief comments at the time reflecting on the work of the committee and describing it as necessary to safeguard democracy.
“It’s important that the American people understand what truly happened and to understand that the same forces that led to Jan. 6 remain at work today,” Biden said at the outset of a June 10 speech on inflation and supply chains.
Biden also used the anniversary of the insurrection to deliver a forceful speech condemning the events of that day and former President Trump’s role in spreading lies about the 2020 election.
But broadly, the White House has chosen not to offer thoughts on day-to-day developments in the hearings, the eighth of which took place in prime time on Thursday. The panel is expected to take a break from public hearings for the month of August and resume in September.
“When it comes to the Jan. 6 hearings, they are playing their cards pretty close to perfect,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “There is no reason why they need to get in the middle of what are some of the — if not the best run — committee hearings I’ve ever seen.”
But others are hoping the president takes the opportunity to reflect on what the revelations show about the fragility of the U.S. system.
“Ideally, we would have a president who would be adding to the conversation by talking about this and I think that Biden can still be that president,” said Jeff Hauser, founder of the progressive organization the Revolving Door Project. Hauser acknowledged, however, that Biden’s current weak political standing is a complicating factor.
“It might make anything he says appear more political and opportunistic than if he were riding higher in the polls,” he said.
Numerous polls in recent weeks have shown Biden’s approval rating in the high 30 percent range, with his standing largely attributed to frustration among voters about inflation and the economy as a whole.
Should the president and White House officials turn their attention to the Jan. 6 hearings, some voters may perceive it as trying to score political points at a time when most Americans are concerned about high gas prices, the cost of food and the availability of baby formula.
“If you have the long view, this is an opportunity for the Biden administration to continue to sully Trump if Trump is the guy in 2024, so it’s a way to kind of pre-kickoff the campaign,” said John Thomas, a GOP consultant.
“On the other hand, if I were team Biden, I would be looking for the fact that voters today simply don’t give a rip about anything but the economy and gas prices,” Thomas continued. “And to the degree the White House is talking about other things, they’re missing where the electorate is at.”
Polls show that a large slice of the American public is paying attention to the hearings. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Thursday found that almost 6 in 10 Americans say they are paying some or a lot of attention to the public hearings, including majorities of Democrats and independents. However, the same survey found that inflation, abortion, guns and health care all outpace the Jan. 6 hearings as a top concern for voters.
To be sure, the Biden White House has helped facilitate the probe by waiving executive privilege over Trump-era documents the committee requested and obtained from the National Archives. A lawsuit brought by Trump failed to block the release of the material.
“There is no executive privilege to overthrow the U.S. government, there is no executive privilege to plan and launch an insurrection,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said on MSNBC Thursday. “The committee’s investigation is outside the scope of executive privilege.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland has kept progress of the Jan. 6-related investigation under wraps, despite rampant speculation about potential charges and calls from some progressive groups for more transparency.
“We do not do our investigations in public. This is the most wide-ranging investigation, and the most important investigation that the Justice Department has ever entered into … We have to get this right,” Garland said Wednesday at an event on firearms trafficking.
“And for people who are concerned, as every American should be, about protecting democracy, we have to do two things,” Garland continued. “We have to hold accountable every person who is criminally responsible for trying to overturn a legitimate election, and we must do it in a way filled with integrity and professionalism.”