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How Biden aides are trying to shield the president from protests

How Biden aides are trying to shield the president from protests

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s team is increasingly taking extraordinary steps to minimize disruptions from pro-Palestinian protests at his events by making them smaller, withholding their precise locations from the media and the public until he arrives, avoiding college campuses and, in at least one instance, considering hiring a private company to vet attendees.

The efforts have resulted in zero disruptions at events the White House or the campaign have organized for Biden in the five weeks since he was interrupted a dozen times during an abortion rights speech in Virginia. But they have also meant that Biden is appearing in front of fewer voters and not personally engaging with some of the key constituencies whose support he is struggling to gain, such as young voters.

“He’s better in small venues,” a Biden ally said, citing retail politics as “where he thrives.”

“But the downside is that means he doesn’t reach as many voters,” the person added. “The point is to reach as many voters as you can, and those small events don’t.”

The campaign is applying the guarded approach to its marquee fundraiser this month with Biden and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as first reported by NBC News. 

Organizers are discussing whether to hire a private company to vet attendees, according to three people familiar with the planning. The lowest-cost tickets will be set at a price still high enough — the campaign hopes — to interest only true supporters of Biden’s re-election effort, these people said. 

And the moderator of a discussion with the three presidents will be late-night host Stephen Colbert, whom the campaign sees as a low-risk, friendly choice, the people familiar with the planning said. 

Biden’s aides view events without disruptions as more valuable than larger ones where his message gets drowned out by protesters. They saw his Virginia speech as an inflection point that prompted them to rethink the sizes, audiences and locations of events for him and other top White House officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris. The strategy shift is driven by concern that the protests get more attention than the events’ messages and showcase divisions within the Democratic Party over Biden’s support for Israel in its war against Hamas.

The Biden campaign is organizing a number of “larger-scale events over the coming weeks,” after the State of the Union address, according to a source familiar with the planning, “reaching voters where they are, including on college campuses.” 

The Biden team’s desire to limit disruptions at White House and campaign events has also shaped Harris’ approach to public events.

Last fall, Harris launched a tour of college campuses that was focused on reaching young voters. After a spate of events in the fall, Biden officials planned to move the effort to the campaign and extend it into the spring semester, as well, according to a campaign official familiar with the planning. But the college-specific series was postponed over concerns about protests from students who oppose the Biden administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war, this official said.

Harris did hold a stand-alone campaign rally at South Carolina State University, a historically Black institution, on Feb. 2, which was not interrupted by protesters. 

Last week, though, Biden chose to announce a $1.2 billion student loan forgiveness program in front of a few dozen people at a small public library in the Los Angeles area, not at one of the at least five large college campuses within a 10-mile radius. 

The new, guarded approach often includes a new level of secrecy about the locations of Biden’s events. 

The sites of his recent stops in Detroit; East Palestine, Ohio; and Culver City, California, have been kept under wraps until his arrival. Pro-Palestinian protesters still gathered along Biden’s motorcade routes and outside the venues in Michigan and Ohio, but they were kept at a distance. And when Biden visited New York this week to tape an appearance on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” protesters gathered in the lobby of the building.  

While Biden was traveling in San Francisco last week, protesters chased journalists down a hallway and into a parking garage of his hotel as they were headed to join his motorcade, according to two people who were present.

The Secret Service — which typically does not get involved protecting journalists traveling with the president, just the president himself — stopped the protesters as they neared his motorcade.

While Biden aides have managed to minimize protests at his White House and campaign events, pro-Palestinian demonstrators have in recent weeks disrupted events he attended that were organized by other groups, including the United Auto Workers union and the South Carolina Democratic Party.   

That Biden aides are taking strict measures to dim the chances of protesters’ getting into the fundraiser with Biden, Clinton and Obama — which the campaign wants to get maximum exposure — underscores how their concerns about disruptions at the event outweigh opening it up to a broader group of supporters in an election year. Organizers are planning for several thousand attendees, according to two people familiar with the planning, though the venue can hold twice as many people.

The campaign has so far revealed only the date — March 28 — and the city where the fundraiser will be held — New York. It has yet to send out a formal invitation to donors with the venue, which NBC News has reported is likely to be Radio City Music Hall.  

Setting a higher ticket price is intended to deter some people who might consider buying tickets just to protest, the three people familiar with the planning said. And while Biden aides have discussed whether to hire a company to vet ticket sales to further weed out potential protesters, no decision has been made, the people familiar with the conversations said.   

A Biden campaign spokesman said the vendor is being considered in part because of the large number of people expected to attend its biggest fundraiser to date.

Beyond the challenges that protests present, Biden aides insist their decision to do more small events in recent weeks lets Biden show a more off-the-cuff style that allows him to connect more directly with voters. And having Biden engage with smaller crowds has been part of a strategy to try to put him in more casual settings, NBC News has reported. 

Many of Biden’s recent public appearances have been what the White House refers to as “OTR stops,” which are presidential visits to businesses or residences that are not publicly announced beforehand and are labeled “off the record.” Biden aides describe such stops as efficient and innovative ways for him to meet voters. They said the events also typically garner positive local news coverage while providing the campaign with material to share on its digital platforms. 

“I think at some point you’ll see him having those big rallies and big crowds, because that ultimately is how you get to a large swath of voters,” a Democratic ally of the campaign said. 

A Democratic strategist who was struck by the staging at Biden’s student loan forgiveness event noted that while the precautions for potential protesters are understandable, such measures pose a long-term political challenge for the party if its presidential nominee is unable to hold big rallies on university campuses.

But for now, a Biden aide said, the small-events tactic is expected to “continue in perpetuity.”

Monica Alba

Monica Alba is a White House correspondent for NBC News.

Carol E. Lee

Carol E. Lee is the Washington managing editor.

Peter Alexander

Peter Alexander is chief White House correspondent for NBC News.

Elyse Perlmutter-Gumbiner

Elyse Perlmutter-Gumbiner is the coordinating producer for the NBC News White House unit.

Kelly O’Donnell

and

Mike Memoli

contributed

.

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