Politico

Behind Biden’s decision to not name names over the Buffalo shooting


BUFFALO, N.Y. — Speaking for the second time in less than four hours on Tuesday about the racist shooting at a Buffalo grocery store that had left 10 dead, President Joe Biden pledged to hold those who had inspired the shooter accountable.

“We’re gonna fight like hell and we’re going to expose everybody,” he declared.

But despite describing the shooting as an act of domestic terrorism, the president declined to do any actual exposing on Tuesday. He did not name individuals who he believed were responsible for spreading “replacement theory” dogma that compelled the Buffalo shooter to act. Instead, he cast blame on institutions and nameless politicians who he said were cynically pushing the theory for profit and power.

Biden’s aides say that his reticence is deliberate, and that it underscores just how delicate he and his administration view the current tinderbox that is American politics. They have been reluctant to call out individuals by name precisely out of fear that it would distract from the “substance” of the problem and give more attention to the conspiracy, which holds that white Americans are being replaced by nonwhite immigrants orchestrated by a cabal of elites eager to see Democrats win office.


Senior aides have felt that pressure from fellow Republicans and, importantly, advertisers would be more effective in pushing individuals like Fox News host Tucker Carlson to distance themselves from replacement theory. As one senior aide put it, there was no desire to give Carlson a clip of a presidential attack that the host could “use in his A-block every night.”

“[We] totally understand the desire to call people out who have been pushing this disgusting rhetoric, but I also think it’s worth remembering that many of these demagogues would love nothing more than the oxygen and attention that comes from the president blasting them,” a person familiar with the White House’s thinking said. “And in turn, that attention and notoriety may help them further spread these lies.”

“Doesn’t mean you never call them out, but I think it means you need to be very judicious about doing so and cognizant that it may have unintended consequences,” the person added.

Biden’s decision to go to Buffalo on Tuesday came within hours of the reports of the mass shooting there, with the president asking his advisers to make a plan for him to go despite having a grueling flight to Asia slated later this week. According to three White House officials, Biden pressed them to make it happen, checking first with Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York about the feasibility of going to the site of the shooting not even 72 hours after it took place.

Biden and his senior advisers huddled over the weekend on how best to approach the larger moment, which stood as a major test for the president. He launched his 2020 campaign after being horrified by the scene and violence of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va., and felt compelled to note the through line between that event and the massacre in Buffalo. Moreover, he is well aware that Black voters were the backbone of his 2020 run for office, first reviving his listless campaign during the South Carolina primary and then carrying him to the general election. Frustration has grown among many of them after the failure to push through federal voting rights and police reform legislation. Now, 10 of their brethren were slain by a gunman who live-streamed the shooting, a racial epithet written on his modified automatic weapon clearly visible as he fired.


Biden set the tone early, telling aides that his visit to Buffalo needed to be, first and foremost, about consoling those grieving loved ones but that he also wanted to denounce the racism underlining the tragedy. Some aides pushed to specifically name those national figures who had pushed “replacement theory,” including Carlson and the No. 3 House Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York. But the idea was dropped, in favor of broader admonishments.

“I call on all Americans to reject the lie. And I condemn those who spread the lie for power, political gain and for profit,” he declared in Buffalo earlier Tuesday. “We need to say as clearly and forcefully as we can that the ideology of white supremacy has no place in America.”

Biden’s approach has not been universally applauded, including by people who have been supportive of the White House. Rev. Al Sharpton told POLITICO that if the administration was too nervous to call out Carlson by name, Biden should at least go after his employer.

“He could call out the network where he doesn’t elevate the host,” Sharpton said of Fox News. “We clearly should be talking about how the networks are pushing this stuff and acting like they have no responsibility. So I would certainly support him calling individual names, but the least he could do is calling the networks out.”

Civil rights leaders say that while it was important for Biden to go to Buffalo, they want to see more. On Sunday, several of those leaders had a phone meeting with officials from the Justice Department who promised to take the shooting seriously but stopped short of promising an investigation.

“You have people who really do get it. The question is what do they do? How far do they go? What tools do they have in the Department of Justice to educate people that it’s not an isolated incident,” Melanie Campbell, the president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, who was on the call, told POLITICO.


For Biden’s defenders, however, his day in Buffalo showed the strengths he brings to the office. Standing just steps from the supermarket where 10 were killed, the president made the sign of the cross as first lady Jill Biden placed a white bouquet at a makeshift memorial, the base of a tree now covered in candles, signs and flowers. He spent well more than an hour privately meeting with survivors and families of the dead, listening to their stories of loss and sharing his own.

And then he delivered a mournful tribute to those lost — at one point choking up when describing one of the victims gunned down while buying a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son — and delivered a forceful denunciation of the racist theories that fueled the violence.

But even as Biden sought to turn a harsh spotlight on the threats that he believes the country faces, he also conceded the limitations of what he could do to prevent them.

“Look, I’m not naive,” he told the crowd. “I know tragedy will come again. It cannot be forever overcome.”

Later, speaking to reporters on the tarmac before boarding Air Force One for the flight back to Washington, a frustrated president could only solemnly acknowledge that the chances were remote that any meaningful moves would soon occur to change a country awash in guns.

“It’s going to be very difficult,” he said quietly, barely audible over the roar of the plane’s warming engines. “But I’m not going to give up trying.”

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