by John Harwood
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
President Joe Biden said Friday that he was not fully confident that the current U.S. Supreme Court, which he described as extreme, could be relied on to uphold the rule of law.
When asked the question directly, Biden paused for a few seconds. Then he sighed and said, “I worry.”
“Because,” he said, “I know that if the other team, the MAGA Republicans, win, they don’t want to uphold the rule of law.”
But he said, “I do think at the end of the day, this court, which has been one of the most extreme courts, I still think in the basic fundamentals of rule of law, that they would sustain the rule of law.”
Still, Biden said the court itself should recognize it needs ethics rules after stories by ProPublica revealed that billionaires had given undisclosed gifts to Supreme Court justices and that Justice Clarence Thomas has made appearances at events for donors to the Koch political network. The code of conduct that applies to other federal judges doesn’t apply to the Supreme Court. “The idea that the Constitution would in any way prohibit or not encourage the court to have basic rules of ethics that are just on their face reasonable,” Biden said, “is just not the case.”
The discussion was part of a rare formal interview on a topic the president has laid out as a priority: How America’s democracy is under siege. Seated in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Friday afternoon, Biden seemed relaxed and confident, batting back a question about why he thinks he’s the only Democrat who can protect democracy next year, especially given voter concerns with his age: “I’m not the only Democrat that can protect it. I just happen to be the Democrat who I think is best positioned to see to it that the guy I was worried about taking on democracy is not president.”Campaign Action
Biden cast the threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump’s 2024 candidacy as a resistance movement animated by fear of change. “I think Trump has concluded that he has to win,” Biden said, noting the rising vitriol in the embattled former president’s rhetoric. “And they’ll pull out all the stops.”
Biden linked the attempt by House Republicans to bring Washington to “a screeching halt” through a government shutdown to Trump’s effort to regain the presidency. He warned against the desire of “MAGA Republicans” — which he called a minority of the GOP, much less the nation as a whole — to weaken institutions such as the federal civil service to shift power over the U.S. government toward the president alone. Trump has promised his supporters to “be your retribution” in a second term.
The drama over a government shutdown resulted from the “terrible bargain” Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy made with extremist colleagues to secure his job, Biden said. “He’s willing to do things that he, I think, he knows are inconsistent with constitutional processes.” He added: “There is a group of MAGA Republicans who genuinely want to have a fundamental change in the way that the system works. And that’s what worries me the most.”
Biden faulted his Democratic Party for failing at some points to respond effectively to one of the wellsprings of the anti-democratic threat: the anxieties of Americans, most conspicuously blue-collar white men, unsettled by economic, cultural and demographic change.
What’s needed isn’t so much economic benefits as “treating them with respect,” said Biden, who has emphasized his middle-class Scranton, Pennsylvania, upbringing throughout his political career. “The fact is, we’re going to be very shortly a minority-white-European country. Sometimes my colleagues don’t speak enough to make it clear that that is not going to change how we operate.”
Biden expressed confidence that the majority of the Republican Party and the nation itself would ultimately safeguard the American experiment. But he exhorted them to “speak up” in opposition to the increasingly menacing rhetoric Trump has deployed in response to his legal peril.
“[Do] not legitimize it,” he said. He added, in what seemed a reference to the vitriol aimed at jurors and potential jurors in trials for the Jan. 6 insurrection and Trump-related cases, “I never thought I’d see a time when someone was worried about being on a jury because there may be physical violence against them if they voted the wrong way.”
He encouraged Americans concerned about democracy to be “engaging” more with family, friends and acquaintances who have embraced extremism. Even more urgent, he added, is voting in next year’s presidential election. “Get in a two-way conversation,” he said. “I really do believe that the vast majority of the American people are decent, honorable, straightforward. … We have to, though, understand what the danger is if they don’t participate.”
ProPublica also asked Biden whether his former Senate colleague Joe Lieberman is upholding democracy by working with an organization called No Labels to pursue a potential third-party candidacy. “Well, he has a democratic right to do it. There’s no reason not to do that. Now, it’s going to help the other guy. And he knows [that]. … That’s a political decision he’s making that I obviously think is a mistake. But he has a right to do that.”
Biden was asked whether Fox News and other outlets that spread falsehoods about the 2020 election drive the threat that he’s concerned about or simply reflect sentiment that already exists. Both, Biden said: “Look, there are no editors any more. That’s one of the big problems.” Without providing detail, he suggested that reporters on outlets such as Fox are just doing what they’re told.
In response to a question about whether the decision by Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of X (formerly Twitter), to lower guardrails against misinformation contributes to the problem, Biden said, “Yeah, it does.” Biden noted that the invention of the printing press had effects that are still felt today. He suggested something similar was happening with the internet. “Where do people get their news?” he continued. “They go on the internet. They go online … and you have no notion whether it’s true or not.”