For those campaigning to bring Donald Trump back to the White House, the past week has seen much to celebrate. For those concerned for the health of American democracy, it felt like a disaster.
Joe Biden was hit by a brutal special counsel report that painted him as elderly with a failing memory, fans of Trump eager to see him on the 2024 ballot appeared set for victory at the US supreme court, and Trump’s only remaining serious challenger in the Republican primary race suffered humiliation at the polls.
Related: ‘Two men three years apart’: Democrats highlight Trump’s mental lapses after Biden report
Trump could even draw satisfaction from Biden’s decision to turn down an hour on national television before Sunday’s Super Bowl, continuing a theme of Biden largely shunning one-on-one major press interviews.
Biden said he wanted to save millions of people, about to enjoy one of the biggest spectacles in American sport, from a lengthy dose of politics even if plenty of other presidents before him have shown no such consideration.
But few believed that was the real motive during a week in which, to Trump’s evident glee, Biden was officially and devastatingly painted as too old and forgetful to know if he was committing a crime.
Biden’s decision to refuse the pre-Super Bowl interview had already been made before Robert Hur, the special counsel investigating his handling of classified documents while out of office, released a report clearing but damning the president.
Hur put his finger on Biden’s open electoral wound when he described the president as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” after a series of gaffs that have increasingly alarmed Americans who worry over the 81-year-old Biden’s health and age but also dread the prospect of 77-year-old Trump’s return to the White House with his raft of criminal prosecutions and two impeachments.
But, increasingly, a Biden vs Trump rematch seems the inevitable choice for American voters come November. And with polls showing a close race – and often Trump ahead – Hur’s report was a huge win for Trump magnified on social media and trumpeted on Fox News and other rightwing media.
The former US president could not help himself from painting the decision not to prosecute Biden as further evidence of his own victimisation as he faces legal troubles from his own retention of classified documents. “I did nothing wrong, and I cooperated far more,” Trump claimed in a message to supporters.
In fact, Biden was cleared in part because – unlike Trump – he immediately returned the classified documents found in his garage and cooperated with the special counsel.
The special counsel in Trump’s case, Jack Smith, is prosecuting him not only for storing classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago residence but for making false statements, conspiracy to obstruct justice and hiding documents from investigators.
But, despite those facts, the past week has undoubtedly been a good one for the Trump campaign and its quest to put Trump back in power, despite widespread fears that a second Trump term would see him undermine US democracy and is motivated mostly by a desire to stay out of jail.
Trump heralded a series of other wins which also provided more fodder for his perpetual claim to be a victim of one conspiracy or another.
At the US supreme court, justices – three of them appointed by Trump – appeared deeply sceptical of attempts by some states to keep Trump off the ballot in November under a constitutional amendment that bars candidates who, as former officials, participated in insurrection or rebellion. Colorado disqualified Trump for instigating the January 6 storming of Congress and riot by supporters who did not accept his defeat to Biden. The justices signaled that Colorado overstepped its authority and that it was for Congress to bar Trump if it wanted to.
This gave Trump another opportunity to paint himself as the target of a conspiracy, calling attempts to remove him from the ballot “election interference by the Democrats”.
Even as the court was hearing the case, Trump’s campaign blasted supporters with a fundraising email in his name: “THEY WANT TO ERASE YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE FOR ME!”.
Trump could also take satisfaction in the humiliation of his last remaining rival in the Republican presidential race, Nikki Haley, who lost the Nevada primary when she was the only name on the ballot. Nearly twice as many people voted for “none of these candidates” as for Trump’s former ambassador to the UN. Trump wasn’t on the ballot because of a peculiarity of the Nevada process which saw him participating in a parallel caucus, which he won handily.
For all that, the political earthquake of the week was Hur’s report given that 76% of voters already say Biden’s mental and physical health is a significant concern whereas only 48% have a similar worry about Trump even though he is just four years younger.
Biden’s lawyers wrote to the special counsel calling references to the president’s memory lapses “gratuitous” and “prejudicial and inflammatory”. Biden himself, at a press conference intended to prove his mental alertness, was incredulous at Hur’s claim that the president was unaware of the death of his own son: “How in the hell dare he raise that?”.
The press conference might have gone a long way to offset the damage of the special counsel’s report had Biden not realised his campaign team’s fears at the end by referring to the Egyptian leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, as the “president of Mexico”. It didn’t help that just days earlier Biden twice confused European leaders with long dead predecessors, muddling up President Emmanuel Macron of France with Francois Mitterrand and the former German chancellor Angela Merkel with Helmut Kohl.
Trump made a similar gaff last month in confusing Haley with the former Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi. But such mistakes are not as damaging to him because the former president’s most ardent supporters evidently forgive him anything and his opponents have far worse criticisms.
Biden could claim his own win from the political fiasco which saw Senate Republicans block a bill to address the growing migration crisis championed by their own leadership when Trump objected to the law because it might help resolve an issue that is electorally damaging to the president. That served as a reminder of the chaos Trump brings to politics that helped cost him the last election.
But, for now at least, opinion polls show Trump continues to make ground against a president whose ratings have slumped ever lower in the wake of his handling of Israel’s latest war on Gaza and the surging migrant crisis. A Morning Consult poll on Thursday gave Trump a five-point lead over Biden nationally. Other polls put the race closer but for a candidate facing more than 90 criminal charges to still be in the running is, at least in part, a reflection of Biden’s weaknesses.
An NBC News poll shows Trump significantly ahead of Biden on all the major issues, including the economy, the migrant crisis on the border and general competence.
There is even better news for Trump in local polls which show him ahead in key swing states. They include Michigan where Biden’s campaign team has scrambled to quell the anger within the US’s largest Arab American population at the president’s largely unswerving support for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. The Arab American vote in Michigan is larger than Biden’s majority in the state at the last election of about 154,000 votes.
Even among the broader Democratic vote there is no great enthusiasm for the current president. The NBC poll showed that 62% of those planning to vote for him would do so principally as a means to keep Trump out of the White House.
Democratic strategists see that as a strength not a weakness. The Biden campaign is focused on telling voters that they must reelect the president in order to save American democracy from a Trump second term.
The president’s strategists are hoping that at least one of Trump’s looming criminal trials for his part in the January 6 insurrection and trying to overturn the 2020 election comes to court before November to remind voters of the threat from another Trump presidency.
But all the while, they will be living in fear of Biden opening his mouth.