President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he is “praying the verdict is the right verdict” in the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin and that he believed the case, which has gone to the jury and put the nation on edge, to be “overwhelming.”
Biden, ahead of a meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office, told reporters that he was only weighing in on the trial into the death of George Floyd, who died with Chauvin’s knee on his neck, because the jury in the case had been sequestered. He confirmed that he called Floyd’s family on Monday to offer prayers and said he “can only imagine the pressure and anxiety they’re feeling.”
“They’re a good family and they’re calling for peace and tranquility no matter what that verdict is,” Biden said. “I’m praying the verdict is the right verdict. I think it’s overwhelming, in my view. I wouldn’t say that unless the jury was sequestered now.”
The president has repeatedly denounced Floyd’s death but had previously stopped short of weighing in on the trial itself, with White House officials earlier saying it would be improper for a president to speak out during active judicial proceedings. His comments came as his administration has been privately weighing how to handle the upcoming verdict, including considering whether Biden should address the nation and dispatching specially trained community facilitators from the Justice Department, aides and officials told The Associated Press.
Biden’s comments come a day after Judge Peter Cahill, who is presiding over the trial, admonished elected officials for speaking out about the case.
“I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that’s disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch and our function,” he said shortly after sending the jury to begin deliberations.
Biden’s comments come with some risk. Defense attorneys often cite remarks made by public officials as a reason to appeal a verdict, in part because it could poison the jury against the defendant.
Cahill delivered his rebuke after rejecting a defense request for a mistrial based in part on comments from California Rep. Maxine Waters, who said “we’ve got to get more confrontational” if Chauvin isn’t convicted of murder. Speaking of politicians in general, he said, “I think if they want to give their opinions, they should do so in a respectful and in a manner that is consistent with their oath to the Constitution to respect a coequal branch of government. Their failure to do so, I think, is abhorrent.”
He conceded to Chauvin’s attorneys that Waters’ comments could potentially be grounds for an appeal.
On Monday, Cahill ordered that the jury be sequestered in an undisclosed hotel during their deliberations and instructed jurors to avoid all news about the case, which in theory should keep them from being made aware of Biden’s remarks.
The jury resumed deliberations Tuesday morning after spending a few hours Monday discussing the case behind closed doors. In closing arguments earlier in the day, a prosecutor told jurors that Chauvin “had to know” he was squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he cried over and over that he couldn’t breathe and finally fell silent. Chauvin faces murder and manslaughter charges.
Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, told NBC’s “Today” show that Biden “knows how it is to lose a family member … so he was just letting us know that he was praying for us and hoping that everything would come out to be OK.”
The verdict – and the aftermath – will be a test for Biden, who has pledged to help combat racism in policing, helping African Americans who supported him in large numbers last year in the wake of protests that swept the nation after Floyd’s death and restarted a national conversation about race. But he also has long projected himself as an ally of police, who are struggling with criticism about long-used tactics and training methods and difficulties in recruitment.
Psaki said Monday that the White House has had a “range of conversations” about preparations for the upcoming verdict and added, “Our objective is to ensure there is space for peaceful protest.”
Psaki said administration officials have been in contact with leaders in Minnesota and in other cities and states that saw unrest after Floyd’s death last year.
Meanwhile, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota have been working with local officials to support law enforcement as they prepare for the possibility of unrest after the verdict, officials said.
And the Justice Department has also dispatched specially trained community facilitators ahead of a verdict, according to a senior Justice Department official. The official could not discuss the plans publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The officials, part of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, tout themselves as “America’s Peacemaker” by mediating disputes in communities and holding listening sessions to help prevent future conflicts.
A federal civil rights investigation, separate from the trial, remains ongoing. Several witnesses were subpoenaed earlier this year to appear before a federal grand jury considering charges against Chauvin.
The Justice Department’s civil rights investigation has been focused on Chauvin and some of the witnesses, including other officers who worked with Chauvin, people familiar with the matter have told the AP.
Chauvin was prepared to plead guilty to third-degree murder in George Floyd’s death before then-Attorney General William Barr personally blocked the plea deal last year. Barr rejected the deal in part because he felt it was too soon, as the investigation into Floyd’s death was still in its relative infancy, law enforcement officials said.
Across the country, police departments are also preparing for the possibility of rioting or other unrest, with some canceling vacation time and increasing the number of officers available for shifts. The federal government hasn’t detailed its plan in the event of widespread or sustained civil unrest.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday that there has been a request from officials in Washington, D.C., for D.C. National Guard forces in the event there is civil unrest in the nation’s capital, and it is currently being reviewed by the Army.