DES MOINES — Joe Biden moved quickly under an arch of balloons and a marching band, past an ice cream truck and dozens of supporters — then he lit into Donald Trump.
At the Polk County Steak Fry, one of the biggest political affairs of the year here, where presidential candidates work to woo Iowa caucus goers, Biden’s early order of business instead was first to wrest control of a burgeoning scandal involving Trump and the Ukraine.
“You should be asking him the question: Why is he on the phone with a foreign leader, trying to intimidate a foreign leader?” Biden snapped at reporters, referencing allegations that Trump had pushed Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son. “This appears to be an overwhelming abuse of power.”
While media coverage over his dealings with Ukraine is swamping Trump and renewing calls for impeachment, it also has singed Biden’s son and is already raising questions about whether it threatens to sully Biden’s campaign for president. Biden’s offensive on Saturday was intended to push back on any media attempt to equate Trump’s alleged actions with that of Biden or his son’s.
Trump has claimed that as vice president Biden demanded Ukraine fire a state prosecutor who was investigating a gas company where Biden’s son held a board position. Multiple news organizations this week reported that Trump had repeatedly pressed Ukrainian authorities to investigate the allegations in a phone call.
Part of the strategy quickly emerging from the Biden camp on Saturday was to forcefully push back on any media attempts to further probe Hunter Biden’s contracts with Ukraine rather than putting the focus squarely on the president.
“You should be looking at Trump,” Biden snapped. “Everybody looked at this and everybody who’s looked at it said there’s nothing there. Ask the right question.”
A memo from the Biden campaign on Saturday offered the same sentiment, closing with a boldface statement that offered up a warning.
“Any article, segment, analysis and commentary that does not demonstrably state at the outset that there is no factual basis for Trump’s claims, and in fact that they are wholly discredited, is misleading readers and viewers.”
The offensive is a sign Biden’s campaign “learned an important lesson from 2016,” said Karen Finney, a former spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton.
“They recognize that after three years of this, it’s not that people are complacent, but they’re worn out and our ability to be shocked has gone down,” she said. “So they’re right to say, ‘no, this is not normal, this is not ok.'”
“It’s important we don’t let this become a false equivalency, so it’s wise on their part to do this,” Finney said.
Talk of Trump’s conversations with Ukraine served as a backdrop throughout Saturday’s steak fry, where a record 12,200 people turned out to what’s typically a light-hearted political event filled complete with sign wars, rallies, and a steady stream of political speeches.
But 2020 candidates were asked to weigh in all day about Ukraine and the president, even if by doing so they risked framing Biden as Trump’s chief opponent. The dynamic meant at least some of the day’s focus shifted to Biden, with his competitors piling on the president. And even as Biden donned an apron and grilled a steak, one of his top surrogates, Sen. Chris Coons, could be heard answering reporter questions about the implications of the ordeal.
“How many crimes does this president have to commit before this Congress acts and impeach him?” Julian Castro said as he opened his remarks.
“I did not think that Donald Trump could shock me anymore, but this behavior is stunning,” Sen. Cory Booker told reporters when asked about Trump and Ukraine, adding that it was “a betrayal of our nation.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren over social media called Congress “complicit” by failing to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump. But reporters still later asked her to weigh in about the president’s conversations about Biden’s son.
“What the president has now demonstrated is that he thinks it’s pretty clear he doesn’t have to follow the law, and in fact, can continue to commit high crimes and misdemeanors,” Warren said. “He can go back to the well and do exactly what he did before, and that is invite and profit from foreign interference in our election.”
Patti Solis Doyle, who served as a senior campaign adviser to Hillary Clinton, said the focus on Biden could send the message to primary voters that he’s who Trump most fears.
“It reframes the race into Trump vs. Biden instead of Biden vs. every other Democrat. And that’s good for Biden,” Solis Doyle said. “But it also brings back headlines on Hunter Biden, and I’m sure Vice President Biden doesn’t want that.”