Robert De Niro leaves after speaking to reporters in support of President Biden at Collect Pond Park across the street from where former president Donald Trump attends closing arguments in his criminal trial at the Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

NEW YORK — The Biden campaign took its biggest step toward engaging with Donald Trump’s criminal trial by staging a news conference on the courthouse’s doorstep Tuesday, injecting the president’s core campaign themes into the coverage but feeding claims from Trump’s team that the prosecution is political.

The White House and the president’s reelection campaign have avoided discussing Trump’s four separate criminal cases, aiming to guard federal and local prosecutors’ independence against Trump’s accusations without evidence that the charges are centrally coordinated and fabricated to harm his candidacy. On Tuesday, Trump’s attorneys and the Manhattan district attorney are presenting closing arguments on charges of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments to an adult-film actress before the 2016 election.

Biden and his campaign have occasionally made oblique references to the trial, often in the form of jokes about Trump being in court instead of campaigning, or him appearing to sleep during the proceedings. But coming to the courthouse was by far the most overt measure the campaign has taken to get involved in wall-to-wall press coverage of Trump’s trial, now in its seventh week.

Michael Tyler, the Biden campaign’s communications director, said they held the event at the courthouse for access to the blocks-long row of TV cameras, breaking into live network coverage.

“We’re here because you’re here,” he said.

But Trump’s aides almost immediately took over the microphones to call the event a stunt that showed desperation as Trump steadily leads in national and swing-state polls.

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“The Biden folks have finally done it: After months of saying politics had nothing to do with this trial, they showed up and made it a campaign event,” Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller said after the Biden team left. “Why the change? … Because Joe Biden’s [poll] numbers are in the tank.”

Trump led Biden 51-49 among likely voters in a Marquette Law School poll this month.

The Biden campaign brought actor Robert De Niro, who recently provided the voice-over for a Biden television ad, and two officers who helped defend the U.S. Capitol from rioting Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021. The focus on Trump’s tolerance and inspiration of political violence reflects one of three themes that the Biden campaign is driving leading up to the first debate on June 27 in Atlanta, the others being abortion and economic policies.

Trump supporters yell as Robert De Niro departs after speaking Tuesday. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

“Under Trump, this kind of government will perish from the earth,” De Niro said of American democracy, referencing Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “If Trump returns to the White House, you can kiss these freedoms goodbye that we all take for granted. And elections? Forget about it.”

De Niro spoke over profane taunts and chants from Trump supporters demonstrating in the neighboring park, calling them “crazy” and a sign of the chaos that Trump sows.

Former Washington police officer Michael Fanone, who was violently assaulted on Jan. 6, said Trump would govern as an “authoritarian who answers to and serves only himself.” Harry Dunn, a former Capitol police officer who ran unsuccessfully in a Democratic congressional primary in Maryland, said Trump is continuing to encourage political violence, noting that his supporters were heckling him and Fanone as “traitors,” as they did on Jan. 6.

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“This is not a drill,” Dunn said.

Officers who were attacked or injured on Jan. 6 are slated to campaign for Biden in six battleground states around the country ahead of the debate next month, emphasizing Trump as a threat to democracy.

Trump has attempted to spin concerns of undermining democracy back against Biden, portraying his criminal charges without evidence as a political persecution. On Tuesday, his spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt scoffed at the criticisms by Biden’s surrogates, calling the proceedings inside the courthouse a “communist show trial.”

Biden officials argue they have not changed their tack, noting that Tuesday’s news conference did not contain any commentary on the actual court proceedings. But officials have started to plan for how to respond to the verdict, including the possibility of referring to Trump as “convicted felon Donald Trump” in social media posts. No final decisions have been made, officials said.

But aides say regardless of whether Trump is convicted, their overall message will remain the same: Concerned Americans only have one option of defeating Trump – at the ballot box in November.

“We’re going to run against the extremism embodied by Donald Trump, whether he sits in that building or anywhere else,” Tyler said, gesturing toward the courthouse. “A threat no matter where he is.”

Donna Brazile, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, applauded the Biden campaign’s news conference, saying they are right to “punch back” and draw a contrast with Trump.

“Isn’t that the Trump playbook? They’re just borrowing a page from the playbook of former president Donald Trump,” she said. “If two or more reporters are gathered, then you try to be in the middle. Whether Biden is campaigning in Pennsylvania or another battleground state, the media is in Lower Manhattan. We can’t deny the fact that Trump’s perfected it.”

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