WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden has privately told advisers that he doesn’t want his presidency to be consumed by investigations of his predecessor, according to five people familiar with the discussions, despite pressure from some Democrats who want inquiries into President Donald Trump, his policies and members of his administration.
Biden has raised concerns that investigations would further divide a country he is trying to unite and risk making every day of his presidency about Trump, said the sources, who spoke on background to offer details of private conversations. They said he has specifically told advisers that he is wary of federal tax investigations of Trump or of challenging any orders Trump may issue granting immunity to members of his staff before he leaves office. One adviser said Biden has made it clear that he “just wants to move on.”
Another Biden adviser said, “He’s going to be more oriented toward fixing the problems and moving forward than prosecuting them.”
Any approach by Biden’s Justice Department to Trump, his staff, his associates, his business or his policies wouldn’t affect investigations by state officials, including Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who has fought to obtain Trump’s tax returns.
As Biden tries to balance his own inclinations and pressures from within his party, his advisers stressed that he is seeking to reset the dynamic between the White House and the Justice Department from what it has been under Trump.
Biden wants his Justice Department to function independently from the White House, aides said, and Biden isn’t going to tell federal law enforcement officials whom or what to investigate or not to investigate.
“His overarching view is that we need to move the country forward,” an adviser said. “But the most important thing on this is that he will not interfere with his Justice Department and not politicize his Justice Department.”
A third Biden adviser said that when it comes to any Trump-related investigations, the expectation is “it’s going to be very situational” and “depending on the merits.” Broadly, Biden’s priorities would be the economy, the coronavirus, climate change and race relations, not looking back at the Trump administration, an adviser said.
Presidents generally set the tone for what issues they believe should be priorities for the Justice Department, and questions about Trump-related investigations or retrospective reviews are expected to intensify as Biden gets closer to taking office.
“He can set a tone about what he thinks should be done,” a Biden adviser said. But, the adviser said, “he’s not going to be a president who directs the Justice Department one way or the other.”
Biden’s team is also reluctant to send any signal to Trump administration officials that the Justice Department wouldn’t look into their actions, given that there are still nine weeks until the inauguration, another person briefed about the discussions said. “While they’re not looking for broad criminal indictments, they do want to make sure that people don’t think there are no ramifications for any of their actions between now and the new presidency,” this person said.
Emphasizing an arm’s-length approach to the Justice Department could give Biden cover from criticism from his supporters about any lack of investigations into Trump, his policies or his staff. Democrats have sharply criticized Trump’s direct influence on Justice Department investigations, including his calls for Biden and former President Barack Obama to be prosecuted over allegations of unspecified crimes. Pledging, as Biden has, not to interfere with federal investigations would be welcomed by many of his supporters.
But it will be difficult for Biden to avoid the issue altogether, given the expected calls for investigations into an array of issues involving Trump — from his administration’s child separation policy to his taxes, possible conflicts of interest and potential campaign finance law violations. The issue could set Biden on a collision course with some of his own supporters, who are eager for a wholesale examination of the Trump presidency.
“There’s also a strong school of thought that believes the law’s the law,” a Biden adviser said, describing the internal debate.
Biden said many times during the campaign that he would leave any decision whether to prosecute Trump up to his attorney general. “If that was the judgment that he violated the law and he should be, in fact, criminally prosecuted, then so be it,” he said during a debate in Atlanta. “But I would not direct it.” Biden has said he wouldn’t pardon Trump should that become a realistic question.
Still, multiple aides said, Biden is generally not inclined to see his Justice Department investigate Trump.
One of the reasons he has given aides is that he believes investigations would alienate the more than 73 million Americans who voted for Trump, the people familiar with the discussions said. Some Democrats have said Biden should be prioritizing the concerns of his supporters, not those of his detractors.
The delicate balance of answering to his own supporters and uniting the country is in part why Biden recognizes that his nominee for attorney general is “going to be one of the most consequential decisions he’s going to make,” an adviser said.
Biden has vowed to sign an executive order declaring that any member of his administration would be fired if found to “initiate, encourage, obstruct or otherwise improperly influence specific DOJ investigations or prosecutions for any reason.”
The dilemma facing Biden is similar to the one Obama faced when he took office in 2009. Democrats were demanding the prosecution of Bush administration officials who were involved in policies that allowed enhanced interrogations, or torture, of terrorism suspects.
To appease those Democrats, Obama released memos about the controversial program and then publicly said he didn’t support prosecuting Bush administration officials who devised or carried out the policies. He also rejected calls for a 9/11-style commission or a truth and reconciliation commission, like the one that examined apartheid in South Africa, to review the policies.