Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden greets people during a campaign stop at Tipton High School on December 28, 2019 in Tipton, Iowa.Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Joe Biden backtracked on Saturday from his stated position that he would not comply with a subpoena to testify in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. Instead, he declared that he would abide by “any subpoena that was sent to me” even as he insisted there was no justification for calling him as a witness.

A day after reaffirming that he would not comply with a subpoena, Biden tried twice Saturday to clarify his remarks, asserting that there would not be “any legal basis” for such a subpoena but left it unclear for much of the day if he would ultimately comply with one. Then, questioned by a voter about the issue of compliance with subpoenas, Biden answered unequivocally.

“I would obey any subpoena that was sent to me,” he said at a town-hall event in Fairfield.

Biden’s 180-degree turn on whether he would comply with a subpoena was one of the starkest and swiftest reversals by a candidate in the Democratic primary campaign and came after he faced questions and criticism about whether his initial stand would run counter to the rule of law.

Biden’s varied responses to a hypothetical question, in which he had criticized himself for drawing attention to in the first place, played out from a series of tweets Saturday morning to remarks to reporters early in the afternoon to his answer in Fairfield on Saturday night.

The issue loomed over his campaign as he courted Iowa voters on a two-day swing, joining several other candidates under a dank grey sky with driving rain as they returned to the state just over five weeks before the nominating caucuses here.

On Saturday morning, Biden wrote on Twitter that he wanted to “clarify” comments he had made Friday, when he met with the editorial board of The Des Moines Register, whose endorsement in the Iowa caucuses is highly sought after by presidential candidates.

Biden was asked by The Register whether he stood by previous comments that he would not comply with a subpoena to testify in the impeachment trial. He said he did and explained that complying with a subpoena and testifying would effectively allow Trump to shift attention onto Biden and away from the president’s own conduct. Biden made similar comments to reporters aboard his campaign bus Friday night.

On Saturday morning, Biden elaborated on Twitter: “I am just not going to pretend that there is any legal basis for Republican subpoenas for my testimony in the impeachment trial. That is the point I was making yesterday and I reiterate: this impeachment is about Trump’s conduct, not mine.”

He also wrote that over the course of his decades-long political career, he had “always complied with a lawful order” and that in his two terms as vice president, his office had “co-operated with legitimate congressional oversight requests.”

Speaking to reporters after a town-hall event in Tipton, Biden said he had “no firsthand knowledge” about the accusations against Trump, so there was “no basis” for calling him as a witness. But, he added, “I would honour whatever the Congress in fact legitimately asked me to do.”

Asked if he would challenge a subpoena in court, he responded: “The answer is, I don’t think that’s going to happen to begin with. Let’s cross that bridge when it comes.” He added that he would abide by “whatever was legally required of me.”

One of Biden’s top rivals for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, also weighed in on Saturday, telling reporters in Des Moines, “If there is a lawfully issued order for a subpoena, then he should comply.”

The House impeached Trump this month over his campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has said she would not formally send the articles of impeachment to the upper chamber until she had assurances that the trial would be conducted fairly.

As he spoke to reporters in Tipton, Biden seemed to fault himself for creating a story line in the news media that continued Saturday. Biden observed that “this is going to be the news today” and added that he was “criticizing myself,” not the press.

“I shouldn’t even have answered the question,” he said. “Because in answering the question, now there’s going to be another round. We’re not talking about: What did Trump do?”

Travelling around Iowa in his “No Malarkey” campaign bus, Biden held three town-hall-style events Saturday, fielding questions from the audience at each one. At an event in Washington, Iowa, one attendee asked Biden if he would nominate former President Barack Obama to the Supreme Court.

“If he’d take it, yes,” Biden responded.

The campaigning resumed after Christmas, even if many Iowans were more focused on college football than politics.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, spent Saturday afternoon meeting voters in the Des Moines area and fielding questions that, at times, homed in on two of his biggest vulnerabilities as a candidate – doubts about whether his high-minded words about fixing the nation’s problems can produce tangible results, and his ability to attract more African American support.

In a middle school gymnasium in Marshalltown, about an hour northeast of Des Moines, one man told Buttigieg that he needed more than just “vision statements and goals.” The mayor responded by noting there was a reason “I’m being a little careful on what I promise,” which he then followed up with a thinly veiled critique of plans by opponents like Warren and Bernie Sanders of Vermont to offer free college tuition and “Medicare for all” health care plans.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “We’re offering big, bold, ambitious ideas.” But candidates, he added, can have ideas that are both “big and practical.”

Later, at a meeting in Des Moines that included several people affiliated with the NAACP, a young black man pointedly asked Buttigieg, “How can we trust you to be a champion on racial justice?” After the mayor walked the young man through what he said was some “misinformation” about his record with African Americans, the questioner still was not satisfied and pressed him. Why should you be president, he asked, “if you didn’t do a good job in South Bend?”

“Most people in South Bend believe I did a good job,” Buttigieg responded, including, he added, people of colour. “And I would invite you to check the data on that.”

Warren also returned to Iowa after a holiday break, with two events in the Des Moines area that focused on her core message of economic inequality and structural changes. In Urbandale, Warren pitched herself as a pragmatic progressive who could work across the aisle, citing a hearing aid bill that was signed into law by Trump in 2017.

“This is about making markets work,” she said, separating herself from Sanders – who calls himself a democratic socialist and is more openly critical of capitalist markets.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe