Biden team ramps up strategy for dealing with more protests — from the left and the right

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s advisers and Democratic Party leaders have been preparing for more than the usual political protests on the campaign trail this year, from both the left and right, and recently began crafting a plan to address it, according to four people familiar with the planning.

As part of the strategy, Biden advisers are seeking to confront dynamics that only recently emerged: an uptick in protests of the president’s policy on the Israel-Hamas war and demonstrators making it difficult for guests — and in at least one instance, a host — to attend the events.

Such instances have become more frequent as the war in Gaza continues with Biden’s steadfast support for Israel. On Wednesday, pro-Palestinian protesters were dragged and carried out of a United Auto Workers event in the middle of the president's speech. A day earlier, Biden was interrupted by demonstrators calling for a cease-fire more than a dozen times during an event his campaign had promoted as his kickoff to the general election. The apparent coordinated effort included intermittent chants of “genocide Joe,” forcing the president to deliver a choppy marquee speech.

Afterward, one Biden aide said it is “less than ideal” whenever such disruptions happen, but “totally unfortunate” when they overshadow a key presidential message.

While protests are an evergreen in political events for Democrats and Republicans alike, Biden is confronting an uptick in disruptions from within his own party because of one specific policy decision. The protests risk undercutting a core Biden campaign message: that he brings unity and stability to the country unlike his expected GOP opponent, former President Donald Trump, who has sought to exploit divisions inside the president’s voting coalition. And as a candidate running on a promise to protect American democracy, including free speech, Biden faces a particular challenge in limiting how disruptive protesters are without taking too heavy a hand, his aides said.

To navigate the issue, Democratic officials have tapped a veteran in advance planning for campaign events to help oversee a new approach, according to Biden officials, who expect more protests throughout 2024.

Doug Landry, who has worked on planning logistics for several presidential campaigns, has been tasked with helping find a way to allow for critics of Biden’s policies to freely express their views, but not to the extent that overwhelms campaign events or blocks supporters from attending, officials said.

Landry was at Biden's events Tuesday in Virginia and Wednesday in Washington, D.C., behind the scenes, briefing volunteers and campaign aides on plans.

Biden aides have been preparing the president for how to handle protests during his speeches, officials said. When protesters of his Israel policy disrupted his event two weeks ago in South Carolina to call for a cease-fire in the war, Biden said he respected their passion as his supporters in the audience chanted “four more years.” He took a similar approach on Tuesday in Virginia, though as the interruptions continued, he appeared visibly irritated.

Planning is still in early stages for major events such as the Democratic National Convention, but the Biden team’s strategy now includes taking specific steps before all events to ensure entry points remain open and accessible, officials said.

Considering potential protests has been a standard part of campaign advance for years, yet officials said they’re approaching 2024 mindful of the greater likelihood of disruptive activity.

Volunteers at events are being trained to keep an eye out for potential protesters, though they are not able to stop them from attending, officials said. At Tuesday’s event in Virginia, for instance, volunteers noticed attendees with pins alluding to their message on the Israel-Hamas war, which allowed officials to be on alert.

Still, no Biden official expected the protesters to interrupt the president 13 times and now fear that’s the playbook for demonstrators at future events, officials said.

Protests have been a particular challenge for the president’s campaign fundraisers, sources familiar with the plans to address them said – so much so that Democratic donors raised the issue last month during a summit hosted by the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., according to multiple attendees.

A week before one donor gathering, actor and director Rob Reiner was unable to even attend a Biden fundraiser he was listed as co-hosting because pro-Palestinian demonstrators had blocked off a number of access roads to the venue, a source familiar with the matter said. And just a few days before that, a Biden fundraiser in Boston got off to a late start because pro-Palestinian protesters blocked guests from parking at the venue, according to an attendee.

The issue hasn’t been limited to presidential events.

Democratic members of Congress also are facing regular protests at their district offices or when attending local events. One Democratic official said that the addresses for some congressional fundraisers are now being left off invitations to make it difficult for groups to plan large-scale protests. Instead, the official said, attendees are given the exact location of the fundraiser just hours before it’s set to begin.

Trump has been met with protests at his recent events as well, telling one of them to "get out of here." The former president has not made freedom of expression a part of his campaign message, and in the past has suggested protesters at his events should be physically harmed or arrested.

Michael Tyler, Biden campaign’s communications director, tried to turn the issue of protests into a political contrast with Trump when asked Wednesday about the coordinated demonstrations at the president’s speech the day before in Virginia.

“What you saw yesterday was a president who understands and respects Americans’ fundamental First Amendment rights to peacefully protest. I think that stands in stark contrast to Donald Trump and the Republicans, who don’t seem to understand the same thing, who only want to use these situations to fan the flames and further divide people,” Tyler told reporters.

The Democratic National Convention this summer in Chicago poses perhaps the biggest challenge for the president’s team.

National conventions are carefully choreographed and highly stage-managed affairs, so any disruptions can leave a black eye at a moment when much of the country is watching.

A spokesperson for the Democratic convention noted that both parties' conventions are classified as National Special Security Events by the Secret Service, meaning sites and hotels will be fortified by federal law enforcement agents during the primary event. Both conventions will include designated “Free Speech” zones.

“We are closely coordinating with law enforcement overseeing security, including planning for expression of First Amendment rights, and we look forward to hosting what we are confident will be a safe and successful convention,” a spokesperson for the Democratic National Convention said in a statement.

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