President Joe Biden is treading lightly around the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois 18-year-old who last year shot and killed two people and wounded a third during civil unrest following a police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The closely-watched trial ended Friday, as the jury found Rittenhouse not guilty on all charges. “I stand by what the jury has concluded,” the president told reporters following the verdict, noting he “didn’t watch the trial.” He added, “the jury system works, and we have to abide by it.” Biden continued such moderation in a subsequent statement on Friday, noting that he was among “many Americans feeling angry and concerned” over the acquittal. He nonetheless urged his countrymen to “acknowledge that the jury has spoken.”
Vice President Kamala Harris was slightly more forthcoming, telling reporters the verdict “speaks for itself” and that “clearly, there’s a lot more work to do” to “make the criminal justice system more equitable.” But at a tenuous point in Biden’s presidency, the White House, aware of the political landscape, has been careful in how it reacts to a trial that “put issues of race and vigilante justice in America on the stand,” as my colleague Eric Lutz wrote. “This is one of the last things Biden wants to be engaging in at this moment as he tries to finish up the big Build Back Better bill,” Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, told the Associated Press. Biden was already grappling with low approval ratings ahead of next year’s midterms. Now, the president is stuck “between outraged Democrats—some of whom were already stewing over Biden’s inability to land police reform and voting rights legislation—and Republicans looking to use the Rittenhouse case to exploit the national divide over matters of grievance and race,” the AP reports.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was among the Democrats who saw the verdict as “a miscarriage of justice” with dangerous implications for protesters. Republicans, meanwhile, have cheered the acquittal as a win for the “moral and legal right to self-defense,” as Senator Ted Cruz put it. Rep. Cori Bush, a Democrat, went so far as to call for three of her Republican colleagues to be expelled after they publicly offered internships to Rittenhouse.
Some Republicans have hailed Rittenhouse as an American hero and are claiming his acquittal as a political win. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado tweeted Saturday that “it seems liberals want self-defense to be illegal” and to “try running on that in 2022 and see how far it gets you with the majority of the sane American public.”
Complicating the president’s apparent strategy to stay out of the crossfire are conservative officials demanding that Biden apologize for a tweet in which he appeared to suggest Rittenhouse was a white supremacist. The post, made during the 2020 presidential campaign, criticized Donald Trump for failing “to disavow white supremacists on the debate stage” and included a video containing an image of Rittenhouse from the night of the Kenosha shooting. Biden “smeared a teenager to score political points and spread lies about this case,” Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wrote on Twitter. Rep. Dan Bishop called Biden’s comment “beyond shameful,” while Rep. Ronny Jackson claimed Biden was “wrong once again” and “better apologize.” Senator Tom Cotton, too, said the president “needs to publicly apologize to Kyle Rittenhouse.”
Biden reportedly declined to respond directly when asked about his past commentary by a reporter on Friday. But even before the verdict came down, those on the right were championing Rittenhouse and using his case against Biden. “Why did President Biden suggest that Kyle Rittenhouse, on trial in Kenosha, is a white supremacist?” Fox News’ Peter Doocy asked Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, on Monday, the day before deliberations began. Psaki declined to speak to “anything about an ongoing trial” nor Biden’s past comments but reiterated “the President’s view that we shouldn’t have, broadly speaking, vigilantes patrolling our communities with assault weapons.”
That Rittenhouse was apparently vindicated in doing so sets a dangerous precedent—one some activists refused to mince words about, even as Biden, feeling pressure from both sides, opted for something more placating. “The broad message that came out of” Rittenhouse’s trial is “that vigilantes can go to protests and kill people and say that they were defending themselves,” Rev. Al Sharpton said Friday, “which puts all Americans—particularly those that want to protest for whatever issue—in danger.”
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