The campaign world knew that Joe Biden would announce his presidential bid Thursday in an early morning video release. But few were expecting it would be so dark and funereal.
Filled with extensive footage of white supremacists marching with torches, scenes of Nazi and Confederate flags and pegged to President Trump’s reaction to the 2017 racist march in Charlottesville, the 3-minute, 30-second spot was an unlikely announcement video — especially for Uncle Joe, one of the last of the happy warriors.
Where other 2020 Democratic candidates talked about their biographies and offered sunny visions of the future, Biden launched his campaign with a nod to one of the nation’s darkest moments in recent years, casting the election as a referendum on the president and a need to return to core American values.
The former vice president spoke gravely about the violence in Charlottesville and the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who sparked it — “their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging and baring the fangs of racism, chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the 30s.”
The reaction to the video was decidedly mixed — even among political professionals. Some hailed it as stroke of genius that distinguished Biden from the crowded Democratic field by announcing in stark terms his intention to take the fight to Trump in a way no one else has dared.
Others, however, viewed it as a serious miscalculation, an exercise in stepping on his own message as the heir to Obama’s inspirational legacy.
“Hope and change has given way to fear and loathing,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the liberal group Democracy for America, which endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016 and is neutral this year.
“The video is incredibly bizarre,” said Sroka, a veteran digital specialist who worked in Obama’s 2008 campaign and his administration, echoing other progressive activists and ad experts. “It’s oppressively focused on Trump while raising the question: Why did it take until Charlottesville to tell you Trump was a nightmare?”
The direct-to-camera narration (which was also used by Beto O’Rourke in his own announcement video) had a throwback quality that made it look like a campaign production from 2008 instead of 2019, reinforcing the notion that the campaign of the 76-year-old Biden was stuck in the past, Sroka and others said.
Several Democratic operatives who declined to be named said even the way the announcement was displayed on Twitter — by way of a YouTube link, instead of being uploaded into the platform’s video player — suggested that Biden’s team was unaware that the social media site’s algorithm would essentially inhibit it from going viral or automatically playing for viewers who could miss it as a result.
Still, the video did the trick for Democrats who want a candidate to take the fight to Trump. And it was played in full on MSNBC, amplifying its reach and Biden’s frontal attack on Trump for saying there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests.
Several ad makers who spoke to POLITICO said while the video wasn’t a standout, it effectively conveyed the message that Biden would directly confront Trump.
John Rowley, founder of Nashville-based CounterPoint Messaging, said unlike lesser-known candidates, Biden didn’t need a kick-off video to move him into the next strata.
“I think that the thing we know about primary voters is that they want to beat Trump. The strength of the video is that it makes that case and it makes the case surprisingly aggressively,” Rowley said. “It draws that out in the first 15, 20-25 seconds. That sort of surprised me about that.”
But another top Democratic ad maker who is not affiliated with any campaign, said the only surprise with the video was how bad it was.
“It looks in memoriam. The font is your grandmother’s funeral card,” said the ad man, who didn’t want to go on record trashing the campaign of Biden, the Democratic frontrunner. “To get people to watch your video and make it go viral, you want people to share it and say you’ve got to see it. Your first four seconds have to be the hook, something to get people to stay. The first 15 seconds of this is Joe rambling along. It’s the most Joe thing ever. It’s what you would’ve done in 2004.”
The video was made by longtime Biden advisor Mike Donilon — and not one of the party’s most innovative after message-meisters, Mark Putnam, who is working with the Biden campaign — leading to speculation that Putnam had a falling out with the campaign over the video, but two informed sources said Putnam shot footage for a separate video that featured Biden in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Republican ad maker Fred Davis, known for his memorable campaign commercials, said it was clear Putnam didn’t make Wednesday’s announcement, which he described as “boring.”
“Biden said the right things. He looked fine. The production was fine. But I’m a Mark Putnam fan. I want to see what he did,” Davis said. “You can say fine, fine, fine. But it was anything but thrilling and inspiring. It was boring. This won’t take its place in history of viral videos. Mark’s probably would have.”
Joe Biden and Barack Obama got off to a rocky start in 2007, but they found their way to a mutual respect and good working relationship for the next eight years.
Obama showed his appreciation at the end of their second term by rewarding Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.When Biden tells friendly crowds inside stories about their relationship, the former vice president goes out of his way to refer to the former president as “Barack” to personalize their connection and accentuate their warm familiarity.
“I’m an Obama-Biden Democrat, man. And I’m proud of it,” Biden told reporters earlier this month.
Yet despite a legitimate claim to be the standard-bearer of Obama’s legacy, Biden faces a fundamental challenge as he seeks his party’s nomination for the White House: Convincing the diverse and youthful coalition that elected Obama to two terms that a 76-year-old white man is the right person to carry the mantle.
To Biden and his advisers, age and race are inferior to the political realities of his special relationship with Obama. The question is whether primary voters will see it the same way, especially when the former president has indicated he’ll remain neutral in a crowded Democratic field filled with diverse and dynamic candidates.
David Axelrod, a top Obama adviser, said the former president’s decision to not endorse his former vice president shouldn’t come as a surprise — nor should it be taken as a slight of some kind.
“The custom for former presidents is not to endorse presidents. The expectation that he would, I find kind of baffling,” Axelrod said, adding that Obama believes “people should compete; the strongest candidate will emerge.”
Axelrod described the two as “genuinely friends.”
“That’s not folklore,” he said. “Unlike almost every other vice president and president, these guys got closer and closer over eight years.”
Even if he is not endorsing Biden in the primary, Obama has remained respectful in his public comments and acknowledged the closeness of their working relationship while in the White House.
“President Obama has long said that selecting Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 was one of the best decisions he ever made,” Obama spokeswoman Katie Hill said in a statement. “He relied on the vice president’s knowledge, insight and judgment throughout both campaigns and the entire presidency. The two forged a special bond over the last 10 years and remain close today.”
A source familiar with Obama’s thinking said the former president is “excited by the extraordinary and diverse talent exhibited in the growing lineup of Democratic primary candidates. He believes that a robust primary in 2007 and 2008 not only made him a better general election candidate, but a better president, too. And because of that, it’s unlikely that he will throw his support behind a specific candidate this early in the primary process — preferring instead to let the candidates make their cases directly to the voters.”
One thing is certain: Obama’s political apparatus is not united behind Biden, whose campaign announcement comes after more than 19 other candidates have launched bids.
None of Obama’s inner circle of advisers has signed on with any campaign. But other Democratic contenders have snagged top-level Obama campaign talent and tapped its fundraising prowess.
While Biden’s campaign manager, Greg Schultz, led Obama’s campaign efforts in swing-state Ohio, Beto O’Rourke hired Obama’s 2012 deputy campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon and has enjoyed the support of Paul Tewes, the 2008 Obama campaign’s director in first-caucuses-in-the-nation Iowa. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren signed Joe Rospars, Obama’s chief digital strategist in 2008 and 2012, and Emily Parcell, political director for Obama’s 2008 Iowa caucus team. Several former top Obama administration officials have contributed to Pete Buttigieg.
In the key swing state of Florida, it’s a similar story.Steve Schale, who helped lead Obama to victory there as state director in 2008 and as senior adviser in 2012, is serving as a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign. But California Sen. Kamala Harris scored the support of Obama’s top fundraiser in the state, Kirk Wagar, who was appointed ambassador to Singapore by Obama. The Obama campaign’s deputy Florida director in 2008 and state director in 2012, Ashley Walker, is staying neutral.
“I don’t think there’s any one standard-bearer for the Obama legacy in this primary. There are multiple candidates who could carry that mantle,” Ben LaBolt, a former spokesman for Obama’s reelection campaign, said.
“A big question looming over the primary is: Is this a moment for the longest record of experience or is this a moment for generational change within the party and a new vision within the party?” LaBolt said, noting that “even President Obama has talked about letting this be a moment for generational change and for others to lead and rise through the party and step up. So I don’t think it will be a completely clean shot if he tries to claim he’s the sole purveyor of his legacy.”
The generational split is clear in a February POLITICO/Morning Consult poll showing Biden is weakest with voters younger than 30. But, the poll showed, Biden’s age — he will be 78 on the next Inauguration Day — isn’t a fatal problem for him among Democrats, with 30 percent of them agreeing he’s “too old to run for president;” 58 percent disagreed.
An Obama campaign veteran who had discussed working with Biden’s campaign said there’s a divide among former Obama staffers.
“A lot of us don’t want Joe to run. His time has passed and it’s not his moment,” the operative said. “The real Obama legacy is about the future, not the past. And if he runs, it’s going to put that legacy on trial in a Democratic primary where guys like Bernie [Sanders] are going to take shots at it and tarnish that legacy. … We want Joe to ride off into the sunset.”
Still, nostalgia for the Obama White House in the Trump era is palpable among Democrats. Not only do white progressives and centrists miss the days of “no drama Obama,” African Americans revere the first black president and have transferred some of that loyalty to his loyal wingman.
Looking at the early-state calendar, that support from black voters could be a big boost to Biden in South Carolina, where 60 percent of the primary electorate is black. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, has not endorsed any 2020 candidate but is a Biden ally who speaks favorably of him.
“You can’t go into some black people’s houses here without seeing a picture of Obama on the wall and in some of them Biden is in the background. It makes a difference,” said Kendall Corley, Obama’s South Carolina director in 2008 and 2012 who was in talks to work for Biden in the state.
“There’s some love for Joe Biden,” he said, “and it’s because of Barack Obama and how he stood by him. People remember.”
Symone Sanders, a veteran Democratic communications strategist who has joined former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign as a senior adviser, donated $250 to South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg in March, Federal Election Commission filings show.
The donation to Buttigieg’s Pete for America committee when the South Bend mayor was in the exploratory phase of his presidential campaign came almost exactly a month before Biden announced his candidacy.
Biden’s campaign said Thursday, hours after he announced his candidacy, that Sanders would serve as a senior adviser.
Biden’s campaign declined to comment on the donation, and Sanders did not respond to inquiries.
Biden and Buttigieg in some ways have similar appeal to voters in the Democratic primary. Both aim to rally Midwestern voters and appeal to more moderate voters in the region.
Sanders in 2016 was the lead spokeswoman for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. The Vermont lawmaker is more aligned with the liberal activist wing of the Democratic primary than Biden or Buttigieg. Symone Sanders has also served as a political commentator for CNN and advised Priorities USA, one of the most prominent Democratic super PACs.
White House senior aide Stephen Miller, a powerful immigration policy adviser, will not testify before the House Oversight Committee, the Trump administration said in a letter Tuesday.
The letter, signed by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, said the refusal to appear before the Democratic-led committee follows “long-standing precedent” for White House staffers of both parties and adheres to constitutional law.
The decision to pass on the hearing could keep Miller — largely regarded as the architect of President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda — out of the spotlight. The senior aide reportedly pushed for the removal of several Homeland Security Department officials during a staff shakeup earlier this month.
House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter to Miller last week that invited him to appear voluntarily at a May 1 hearing that will focus on the administration’s immigration policies. Cummings said he requested Miller’s presence because of his apparent role in Trump’s “troubling” immigration policy agenda.
In its response, the White House argued that Cabinet members and agency leaders have testified regularly before Congress and would continue to do so, but that Miller’s testimony was not warranted.
“We welcome the opportunity to discuss the administration’s immigration policy priorities,” Cipollone wrote.
Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan did not violate ethics agreements or promote his longtime employer, Boeing, the Defense Department inspector general has concluded in a probe that was viewed as the major obstacle preventing his nomination to be Pentagon chief.
“The Office of Inspector General took these allegations seriously,” acting Inspector General Glenn Fine said in a statement accompanying the report’s release. “The evidence showed that Acting Secretary Shanahan fully complied with his ethical obligations and ethical agreements with regard to Boeing and its competitors.”
The probe began last month after an independent watchdog group filed a complaint with the inspector general, citing a POLITICO report that Shanahan had disparaged Lockheed Martin’s management of the F-35 fighter program in internal meetings while boosting Boeing.
During the six-week probe, investigators reviewed some 7,300 pages of documents for evidence that Shanahan had violated the ethics agreements he signed upon becoming deputy Defense secretary in 2017 and interviewed “more than 30 witnesses,” including Shanahan himself and other senior Pentagon officials, according to the IG.
“Secretary Shanahan has at all times complied with his ethics agreement, which screens Boeing matters to another DoD official and ensures no potential for a conflict of interest with Boeing,” said Shanahan’s spokesperson, Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino. “Secretary Shanahan remains focused on retooling the military for great power competition, executing the National Defense Strategy, and providing the highest quality care for our servicemembers and their families.”
President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed public support for Shanahan as acting secretary but has stopped short of indicating that he would nominate him.
Shanahan’s lackluster performances in congressional testimony and during a high-profile February summit with NATO allies in Europe had put his expected nomination on hold over the winter. A White House source told POLITICO in March that Trump was awaiting the results of the investigation before deciding on a nomination.
The Homeland Security Department is weighing a plan to bypass immigration courts and remove undocumented immigrants who cannot prove they’ve been present continuously in the U.S. for two years or more.
The proposal is described in a draft regulatory notice, according to two DHS officials and a third person familiar with the planning. If finalized, it would represent the latest escalation of President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown.
The administration has considered since 2017 expanding a fast-track deportation procedure known as “expedited removal,” but thus far has refrained from moving ahead.
The draft notice — which remains under review — would increase significantly the number of recently arrived undocumented immigrants subject to rapid deportation. Under the current standard, expedited removal is applicable only to immigrants picked up within 14 days of arrival. The two-week cutoff stems from a 2004 regulatory change, not from the 1996 statute that created the process.
The change could speed up the deportation of recent arrivals at the border and reduce the load on federal immigration courts, which have grappled with a soaring case backlog. But such a move likely would draw legal challenges — and a number of Trump polices have been sidelined by federal courts.
The planned regulation also would remove a current requirement to apply expedited removal only to undocumented immigrants arrested within 100 miles of a land border, according to the two DHS officials.
Instead, expedited removal would be applied nationwide, the officials said — giving it the potential to sweep up undocumented immigrants in communities across the country.
The constitutionality of expedited removal has been challenged in federal courts. In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that asylum seekers have the right to seek federal judicial review of an expedited removal order. That ruling conflicted with a 2016 decision by a separate federal appeals court.
President Donald Trump asserted Thursday he never instructed former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in 2017, slamming Mueller as a conflicted investigator despite praising him just a month ago.
“As has been incorrectly reported by the Fake News Media, I never told then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, even though I had the legal right to do so,” he wrote in a tweet. “If I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn’t need McGahn to do it, I could have done it myself.”
He continued: “Nevertheless, Mueller was NOT fired and was respectfully allowed to finish his work on what I, and many others, say was an illegal investigation (there was no crime), headed by a Trump hater who was highly conflicted, and a group of 18 VERY ANGRY Democrats. DRAIN THE SWAMP!”
According to Mueller, McGahn told the special counsel’s team that in June 2017, days after it was reported that Trump was the target of an obstruction investigation by Mueller, the president directed McGahn to inform Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Mueller was too conflicted and must be removed. McGahn disobeyed Trump, deciding to resign instead.
McGahn, who spent upwards of 30 hours with the special counsel’s team, has become a favorite scapegoat of the president in the wake of Mueller’s report being made public. Trump’s defenders have seized on this instance, and have argued Trump never explicitly told McGahn to have Mueller removed and pointed to the turnover rates in Trump’s administration as evidence that if the president wanted Mueller gone, he would have been.
But McGahn has pushed back against these accusations, telling NBC News over the weekend his reading of the situation had been accurately portrayed in Mueller’s report.
While Trump initially hailed Mueller’s findings as a vindication after the special counsel did not find collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia and said he would not be charging Trump with obstruction, the president has increasingly returned to hammering the investigation.
Trump told reporters after Attorney General William Barr announced his top-line conclusions in the investigation that Mueller had acted honorably, but on Thursday he again derided the report and Mueller’s investigators.
“Despite the fact that the Mueller Report was ‘composed’ by Trump Haters and Angry Democrats, who had unlimited funds and human resources, the end result was No Collusion, No Obstruction. Amazing!” he tweeted.
President Donald Trump on Thursday welcomed former Vice President Joe Biden to the 2020 field, dubbing him “Sleepy Joe” and questioning his intelligence.
“Welcome to the race Sleepy Joe. I only hope you have the intelligence, long in doubt, to wage a successful primary campaign,” Trump wrote. “It will be nasty – you will be dealing with people who truly have some very sick & demented ideas. But if you make it, I will see you at the Starting Gate!”
Earlier on Thursday, Biden released a video announcing his candidacy that focused heavily on Trump. He accused the president of using a “moral equivalence” when he said there were “fine people” on both sides of the white supremacist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville in 2017.
“In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime,” Biden said in the video. “I wrote at the time that we’re in a battle for the soul of this nation. Well, that’s even more true to today.”
Trump’s latest attack on Biden comes after he predicted last week that Bernie Sanders and Biden will be the last two Democrats standing in their party’s crowded 2020 primary field.
“I believe it will be Crazy Bernie Sanders vs. Sleepy Joe Biden as the two finalists to run against maybe the best Economy in the history of our Country (and MANY other great things)!” Trump wrote in a tweet. “I look forward to facing whoever it may be. May God Rest Their Soul!”
Former President Barack Obama offered some warm words for Joe Biden on Thursday after his vice president officially jumped into the 2020 race, but notably did not endorse him.
“President Obama has long said that selecting Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 was one of the best decisions he ever made,” Obama spokeswoman Katie Hill said. “He relied on the Vice President’s knowledge, insight and judgment, throughout both campaigns and the entire presidency. The two forged a special bond over the last 10 years and remain close today.”
The cryptic message signals that Obama is likely to follow the precedent set in 2016, when he did not endorse any candidates during the primary despite his former secretary of State’s presence in the race. But the former president has largely stayed out of the 2020 primary as the sprawling field of candidates continues to grow, with Biden becoming the 20th Democrat to throw his hat in the ring.
Biden, like Clinton in 2016, is placing his marker in the campaign as an heir of sorts to Obama and the relative stability of his time in the White House, hitching his fortunes to the beloved former president as one way to break through the most diverse primary field ever as a septuagenarian white man.
Obama has met with several 2020 candidates, even offering his advice, The New York Times reported earlier this year, but no endorsement.
David Axelrod, a top adviser to Obama, argued against reading too much into the former president’s lack of endorsement prior to Biden officially jumping in.
“The custom for former presidents is not to endorse presidents. The expectation that he would, I find kind of baffling,” he said, adding that Obama generally believes a competitive primary will weed out the strongest candidate.
Whether Biden is able to leverage his close relationship with Obama to win a primary crowded with Democrats racing to the left remains to be seen, but the former vice president has led the pack in nearly every national and early state poll for months without having officially jumped into the race.