Scenes from Biden’s first encounter with the media in months

WILMINGTON, Del. — Joe Biden made the short drive from his now-famous basement, jogged into the high school gym where he usually votes and excoriated President Donald Trump as failing miserably to protect the health and safety of Americans.

Then, after laying out his own plan to slow the coronavirus, the presumptive Democratic nominee made what now amounts to news in this bizarre election: He opened the floor to questions from reporters, waving off aides when they tried to cut him off and marveling at how strange this has all become.

“This is the most unusual campaign, I think, in modern history,” Biden told a small group of reporters seated inside large white circles traced on the gym floor. Biden reiterated his doctor’s orders that he stay close to home and not host too many events.

It had been nearly three months since he held his last news conference, and that one took place in a choppy virtual setting. In his absence, Biden has faced relentless badgering from the president and his allies, who accused him of hiding out at home and challenged his mental acuity. On Tuesday, Trump’s campaign took credit for smoking out the former vice president. But whatever fire they were hoping would consume him didn’t seem to catch.

“You’re a lyin’ dog,” Biden smirked when a Fox producer promised it would be his last inquiry. The producer allowed that, at 65 years old, he himself sometimes loses his train of thought. “You’ve got 12 years on me, sir,” he said. “Have you been tested for some degree of cognitive decline?”

Biden, who can grow defensive when challenged, took another approach.

“I’ve been tested, and I’m constantly tested,” he said. “I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against.”

Biden couldn’t have picked a more fortuitous time to reemerge. His 20-minute speech tearing into Trump for mishandling the coronavirus was carried live by all three cable networks. So too was his 30-minute question-and-answer session, which came moments after Anthony Fauci warned that daily new cases of the virus could surpass 100,000. If that wasn’t fodder enough for the Democrat, reports that Russia offered bounties for killing U.S. troops — and questions about what Trump did or didn’t know about it — have consumed the White House for days.

Against that backdrop, Biden parried 16 questions from seven reporters, including three from Fox News.

Biden said he had yet to receive intelligence briefings as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee but that he may request a classified briefing on the Afghanistan matter.

He also appeared to commit to releasing a shortlist of potential Black, female Supreme Court nominees ahead of November’s general election.

Asked at another point whether he’s preparing to debate Trump, Biden said, “I can hardly wait.”

Biden has been a public figure for nearly five decades. The focus on his latest outing reflects the strange reality of a campaign in which he’s grown his support in polls by stepping aside.

“They’ve allowed Trump to just implode,” said Pete Giangreco, a Democratic strategist. And by releasing a renewed coronavirus plan on Tuesday, Biden was able to keep the heat on Trump as the president struggles to contain a resurgence of the virus across the country, including in states key to his reelection hopes.

“There’s the old adage, ‘when your opponent’s drowning, throw him an anvil,'” Giangreco added. “They did it today with the coronavirus plan to underscore he’s blown this.”

Trump has attempted to pin the “Sleepy Joe” label on Biden and Republican negative ads have sought to portray Biden as mentally compromised, but so far, it hasn’t stuck. Two national polls last week show Biden with a double-digit lead over Trump as Americans demonstrated uneasiness about the president’s ability to handle coronavirus.

Biden only recently began attending events outside of his Delaware home. His fundraisers and town hall-style events are held virtually. While Biden hadn’t held a press briefing in months, he has sat for national TV interviews. He’s also routinely taken part in one-on-one interviews with local news outlets in battleground states. Biden boasted on Tuesday that his efforts had reached 200 million people.

Biden has had a run of good fortune since he emerged from the primary this spring. The virus obliterated what little appetite Democrats still had for infighting when Bernie Sanders dropped out. Biden’s last presser, on April 2, looks like a relic from another era: He was asked that day to explain why his health care plan for a public option was preferable to Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal.

Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign spokesman, said it shouldn’t be “a news event in itself” that Biden took questions from the press. “That it’s notable is embarrassing for him,” he said. “This is something a national candidate should do as a matter of course.”

Murtaugh’s harshest critiques, however, were aimed at the reporters in the room.

“If that’s the type of questions media will ask, it’s a wonder why Biden hid from them at all. In one answer about concerns over his cognitive abilities, Biden said he gets tested all the time. If that’s so, did he take the cognitive exam he previously hadn’t taken? What were the results? Why is he tested frequently, is someone worried about him?”

Biden’s campaign sees the effort to make an issue of his lack of press conferences as a last-ditch distraction tactic. His aides say Trump has no message and has offered no rationale for a second term. “We have ignored it. We do not care. We see it as totally a flailing, losing campaign,” a Biden adviser said Tuesday.

The adviser said to expect Biden to hold more frequent news conferences going forward. “Especially after this one was all over TV,” the person said.