US President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner
US President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner © AFP or licensors

This is an onsite version of the US Election Countdown newsletter. You can read the previous edition here. Sign up for free here to get it on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Email us at electioncountdown@ft.com

Good morning from a warm, sunny Washington and welcome to US Election Countdown. Today we’ll be getting into:

  • Biden’s opportunity?

  • Trump’s donor retreat

  • RFK Jr’s threat to Trump

Joe Biden has been relatively quiet about Donald Trump’s “hush money” trial, but this past weekend he finally had some fun with it.

“Donald has had a few tough days lately, you might call it ‘stormy weather’,” he joked at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. “Trump’s so desperate he started reading those bibles he’s selling.” 

Cracking jokes at the expense of his rival, Biden seemed to be enjoying the split-screen spectacle that Trump’s legal drama has provided: the president on the campaign trail while the ex-president is snoozing at the defence table. With the presidential candidates basically neck-and-neck in national polls, can Biden seize the opportunity to pull ahead? [Free to read.] 

While he campaigns in swing states, the incumbent president is also governing — he brokered Congress’s passage of new US aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. The image provides a stark contrast to Trump being confined to a cold Manhattan courtroom, unable to hit the campaign trail and woo donors.

Trump’s liabilities are front and centre in his New York criminal trial, said non-partisan political analyst Amy Walter:

The theory of the case for Biden is that even though his numbers are low, even though he’s trailing in the battleground state polls, once people start focusing on Donald Trump as the nominee and as a potential president again, voters will start coming back to Biden . . . This is the first test of that.

But it is still premature to declare whether Trump’s trial will erode his support. A Quinnipiac poll found that 60 per cent of voters thought the charges were serious, but 62 per cent said a conviction wouldn’t change their vote.

“The optics of the trial . . . are not good for Trump, but it is easy to see how people on both sides see their beliefs reinforced by the trial,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll.

Campaign clips: the latest election headlines

  • Robert F Kennedy Jr took his Quixotic run to Long Island, where he campaigned using family nostalgia. [Free to read]

  • The Stellantis CEO has warned against messing with the US-Mexico trade agreement after Trump hinted he could curtail imports across the border.

  • Biden said he’d be “happy” to debate with Trump ahead of the election after weeks of speculation about whether the two would partake in the tradition.  

  • Some Trump allies are reportedly drawing up plans to diminish the Federal Reserve’s independence should he win back the White House. (WSJ)

  • Supreme Court justices seemed sceptical of Trump’s argument for expansive presidential immunity, though they did try to draw a line between personal and official acts.

Behind the scenes

Trump’s campaign is hosting a “spring retreat” this weekend in Palm Beach, Florida, that will include a fundraiser on Saturday headlined by the candidate.

Those giving $5,000 will be able to attend a “VIP lunch reception”, while couples who contribute $25,000 or raise $100,000 will be able to snap a picture with Trump or even sit at his table, according to an invitation obtained by the FT’s Alex Rogers.

The event will be hosted by Republican National Committee co-chairs Michael Whatley and Lara Trump, the candidate’s daughter-in-law.

Alex reports:

The money will go to Trump’s campaign, a leadership Pac that pays for Trump’s legal bills, the RNC, and state Republican parties.

Such fundraising weekends will be crucial for Trump, who spent much of the past couple of weeks in a Manhattan courtroom, as New York prosecutors alleged that he falsified documents to pay and silence porn actor Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.

Biden has been running far ahead in the money race as Trump’s legal fees drain his campaign war chest.

A number of Republicans who have been floated as potential vice-presidential picks will also attend the spring retreat, according to Politico.

Datapoint

This election cycle, weak approval ratings for both Trump and Biden have given rise to a class of “double haters”, voters who are disenchanted by both candidates.

In the latest FT-Michigan Ross poll, just under half of US voters said they would consider casting their ballots for a third-party candidate.

Until now, focus on third-party candidates has mostly centred on the threat RFK Jr’s White House run poses to Biden’s re-election bid. But Republicans are getting worried that the independent could siphon off Trump votes, too.

After a couple of recent polls showed RFK Jr’s candidacy hurting Trump and Biden about nearly evenly, the former president launched a tirade against the Kennedy on his Truth Social platform on Friday:

“RFK Jr. is a Democrat ‘Plant,’ a Radical Left Liberal who’s been put in place in order to help Crooked Joe Biden,” Trump wrote. “A Vote for Junior’ would essentially be a WASTED PROTEST VOTE.”

Despite independent candidates polling at a combined 14 per cent in a five-way race with Trump and Biden, according to a RealClearPolitics average, the results on Election Day will probably look different.

“Independent candidates almost always pull better in the polls than they actually perform on the ballot,” said John Mark Hansen, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago, because voters ultimately do not want to “waste their vote”.

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