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Trump lurches into vacuum created by Biden’s days of silence on campus protests

Israel-Hamas war, Gaza crisis spill into U.S. presidential campaign

Police clash with protesters after an order to disperse was given at UCLA Thursday morning.
Police clash with protesters after an order to disperse was given at UCLA Thursday morning. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — Protests on college campuses related to the Israel-Hamas war and humanitarian crisis inside Gaza that turned violent this week handed President Joe Biden a political headache and former President Donald Trump a new attack line. The unrest showed the risks of being the incumbent and allowed Trump to — once again — push his hardline views as disrupter in chief.

Biden and his campaign aides have mostly dismissed criticism from Arab American groups for months over his “ironclad” backing of Israel. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed in Israel’s brutal response i to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that killed more than 1,000 Israeli citizens.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, jousted with a number of reporters Wednesday over the protests — but she never directly addressed them nor gave a clear reason why Biden had not publicly done so.

Biden’s seeming goal of avoiding ownership of the campus violence and his silence, which ended with previously unannounced remarks Thursday morning from the White House, created a vacuum at the start of the week — one that Trump seemed happy to fill.

“The protests shine a perfect light on the two candidates’ contrasting styles. There is really no federal jurisdiction over the incidents of campus unrest. As a result, you see Biden playing a sober, hands-off role, using the bully pulpit cautiously,” former Florida GOP Rep. David Jolly said in an email. “Conversely, Trump and his allies are reaching for hyperbole and spectacle, promising crackdowns and a boorish strength without any grounding in the realities of governing, nor the delicate balance between rights of speech and assembly, violations of the rights of others, and the complexities of a war we don’t control.

“Biden is exercising the presidency within its contours. Trump promises to shatter those contours.”

As Biden was out of public view for four days after headlining a Washington gala on Saturday evening, he drew fire from all sides — including Arab American groups who have led anti-Biden vote drives in swing states during the Democratic primary.

“The use of city police to dismantle peaceful protests on college campuses in the United States, coupled with proposed legislation to punish Americans for criticizing Israel, is a dangerous assault on our democracy and a sign of the very creeping authoritarianism infecting so much of the world,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, said in a statement.

“The Biden administration has been a shameful accomplice in sacrificing American free speech and civil society at the altar of Israeli interests and demands,” Whitson added.

Trump also pounced as Biden was out of sight fighting, in his own words, “a bit of a cold.”

“To every college president, I say remove the [protesters’] encampments, immediately. Vanquish the radicals, and take back our campuses for all of the normal students who want a safe place from which to learn,” he said Wednesday at a campaign rally in Waukesha, Wis.

“When you see that video of raging lunatics and Hamas sympathizers at Columbia and other colleges,” Trump added, his thought trailing off as he started a new one. “But when you look at it, I say, where did these people come from? I don’t know people like that.”

He also made the claim that Biden’s southern border and migration policies would “create the conditions for an Oct. 7th-style attack right here in America.”

Trump made similar claims later Wednesday at another campaign rally in another Rust Belt swing state, Michigan. As he spoke, Biden was meeting with Asian American donors at a fancy Washington, D.C., hotel, calling India and Japan, along with China and Russia, “xenophobic” — but not mentioning the campus unrest nor the situation in the Middle East, according to a transcript released by the White House.

‘Without violence’

It was not until late Thursday morning that Biden broke his silence on the matter, which lasted for more than a week.

Biden condemned college campus protests over the Israel-Hamas conflict that have turned violent, saying from the White House’s Roosevelt Room that “violent protest is not protected” under U.S. laws.

“It’s against the law when violence occurs, destroying property is not a peaceful protest — it’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations, none of this is a peaceful protest,” the president said.

“Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law,” Biden said. “Dissent is essential to democracy, but dissent must never lead to disorder. … I understand people have strong feelings and deep convictions. In America, we respect the right, and protect the right, for them to express that.

“But it doesn’t mean anything goes. It needs to be done without violence, without destruction, without hate and within the law.”

Jolly said that “politically, any domestic unrest is bad for an incumbent — both know this, so Biden is being careful not to own what are otherwise internal university matters, while Trump and his allies are working hard to nationalize resentment and hostility toward the protests and in turn pin that concern on the president.”

Before his Thursday appearahce, Biden had not commented on the campus protests since April 22. That was before some turned violent or law enforcement officers were called in by the leaders of several major universities to quell unrest and vandalism.

That day, Biden was asked by a reporter about the protests. His response during an Earth Day event in Triangle, Va. was: “I condemn the antisemitic protests. That’s why I have set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Brad Bannon, a Democratic political strategist, said in an email that “the carnage in Gaza and the college campus confrontations here are a serious problem for President Biden.”

“Things will get even worse for him if Israeli strongman [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu widens the conflict and invades the southern Gaza city of Rafah,” he added.

“The chaos here and abroad threatens the president’s reelection campaign. The ghastly images of dead Palestinian children have turned young Democrats against the Israeli invasion of Gaza,” he said. “The president needs overwhelming support from his base to win reelection. The violent clashes between police and students contribute to voter concerns that the nation is out of control and headed in the wrong direction with Biden in charge.”

That’s just the message that Trump was delivering to loyalists and anyone else listening during his Rust Belt campaign stops.

“We do not need a jihad in the United States of America. We do not need our once-great cities to become hotbeds of terrorism,” Trump said in Wisconsin.

“And on day one of the Trump presidency, I’m restoring the travel ban, suspending refugee admissions and keeping terrorists the hell out of our country like I had it before,” he said. “I had it before … so good, you know, when Biden went to the beach all the time.”

‘Where’s SLEEPY JOE?’

Rather than addressing the the campus unrest in real-time, Biden’s team at the White House and his campaign were focused on other issues, including abortion and student loan debt relief, as well as a White House push for Congress to reload a COVID-19 pandemic-era broadband subsidy for underserved areas.

Trump even posted a question on Truth Social on Wednesday morning: “Where’s SLEEPY JOE? He’s SLEEPING, that’s where!!!”

That became a common question by Tuesday night, as New York Police Department officers in tactical gear entered protest-riddled Columbia University and arrested protesters who had barricaded themselves inside a building. The same night, law enforcement stepped in when protesters clashed at the University of California at Los Angeles.

As campus protests heated up late last week, Biden was off the public grid for almost 12 hours, spending the night in New York City before turning up — unannounced — on SiriusXM’s “The Howard Stern Show.” White House and campaign aides had little — sometimes nothing — to say about Biden’s whereabouts and activities each time he was out of sight.

On Wednesday, Jean-Pierre did not use her opening remarks during a media briefing to address the previous night’s sometimes-violent scenes and arrests. Instead, she announced a Biden speech to commemorate the Holocaust and criticized states’ abortion bans.

Trump has tried in recent weeks to drive a further wedge between Biden and Arab American voters, even telling reporters on April 23 at a Manhattan courthouse that Biden is “no friend of the Arab world” — ignoring that Biden has helped steer the Middle East away, for now, from a wider conflict that could put Israel against Iran and possibly other Arab countries.

“Trump, as usual, ignores the nuances of diplomacy and goes full speed ahead in support of Israel’s actions. Meanwhile, the president criticizes Netanyahu without acting against him,” Bannon said. “The president needs to cut through the fog and make a clean break with the prime minister if he expands the conflict.”

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