The president delivered his speech in a familiar setting and framework, but the context was new: It was the White House’s closing argument for the midterms.
By Jonathan Lemire and Meridith McGraw
09/01/2022 12:01 PM EDT
Updated: 09/01/2022 08:25 PM EDT
PHILADELPHIA — With a stern warning about the future of the nation’s democracy, President Joe Biden commanded a prime-time stage Thursday in Philadelphia and singled out his predecessor as an example of the extremism that he believes “threatens the very republic.”
“As I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault. We do no favor to pretend otherwise,” Biden declared. “We have to be honest with each other and ourselves: Too much of what is happening in our country today is not normal.”
“Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very republic,” Biden said in a rare moment of calling out his predecessor by his name. “Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: either they win or they were cheated.”
In some of his sharpest language since taking office, Biden took square aim at the so-called MAGA Republicans who do not recognize the results of the 2020 election and who have espoused violence as a legitimate means of political discourse.
The moment created a stunning split screen with that movement’s leader.
Just hours earlier, the latest hearing played out in a Florida courtroom over the boxes of classified documents found in Trump’s Palm Beach estate. A federal judge indicated she would consider temporarily barring Justice Department investigators from reviewing seized materials. Hours before Biden forcefully addressed election deniers and the rise in political violence, his predecessor was defending Jan. 6 rioters. He vowed, should he run and be re-elected, to offer “full pardons” and a formal apology to those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to overturn the results of the election and now face charges.
A senior White House official earlier had cautioned the night was not about any particular politician, including Trump, but Biden wasted no time repeatedly calling him out by name — something he was once loathe to do. He noted that not every Republican is a “MAGA Republican,” but said “there’s no question the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to democracy.”
Standing in front of Independence Hall, the cradle of American democracy, Biden told the crowd: “MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards. Backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.”
“For a long time, we’ve reassured ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed. But it is not. We have to defend it. Protect it. Stand up for it. Each and every one of us,” Biden said.
Aides stressed that the speech, given just days before the unofficial Labor Day kickoff to the stretch run of the midterm campaign season, would not be overtly political. But it was difficult to read it as anything other than Biden’s attempt to frame the stakes of an election once again dominated by Trump after an FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago home turned up classified information and intensified talk of possible criminal charges for the former president.
And earlier in the day Trump turned the focus once again to Jan. 6 as he told a radio show he would support the very Jan. 6 rioters now facing charges. “I will look very, very favorably about full pardons. If I decide to run and if I win, I will be looking very, very strongly about pardons,” Trump told the Wendy Bell show. “I mean full pardons with an apology to many.”
Trump said he met with Jan. 6 defendants earlier this week at his office and said he will be financially supporting some of them.
On Thursday, former New York Police Department officer Thomas Webster was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his violent assault of a Capitol police officer on Jan. 6. It was the most severe sentence handed down yet for any involvement in the insurrection.
In Philadelphia, Biden’s speech focused on the “continued battle for the soul of the nation,” the principle he cited as the animating force for launching his third — and ultimately successful — bid for the White House. Biden made clear that he believes some mainstream Republicans reject Trump’s ideology, those like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who lost a GOP primary after serving on the House Jan. 6 select committee. And the president urged others in the GOP to finally turn their backs on Trump.
Republicans are also turning to Pennsylvania to make their arguments for the midterms. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy gave a prebuttal to Biden’s speech in Scranton, and tried to flip the script by claiming Democratic policies are an “assault on Democracy.” On Saturday, Trump will hold a “Save America” rally in support of Republicans he endorsed, including gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and Senate candidate Mehmet Oz. Mastriano, a Trump loyalist, has particularly helped lead efforts in the state to overturn the 2020 race — a win by him would place an election denier in control of certifying a key battleground state’s slate of presidential electors.
Biden, currently basking in the glow of a series of significant legislative wins, has ratcheted up his attacks on Republicans in recent weeks. He has denounced Republican support for the Jan. 6 rioters, deemed some in the GOP as “semi-fascists” and on Thursday roared that “there is no place for political violence in America. Period. None ever.”
For Biden, the material and the setting were familiar.
Standing in front of Independence Hall, he had returned to Philadelphia for another landmark moment. He used it as the backdrop for the 2019 campaign kickoff that led him to the White House and visited again last summer for a fiery speech in defense of voting rights.
On this evening, a crowd of hundreds sat in front of what Biden deemed a “sacred place” that launched “the most extraordinary experiment of self-government the world has ever known.” Biden called the current moment “an inflection point” that could determine the nation’s future, and the speech’s backdrop — alarm red lighting surrounding a president flanked by two U.S. Marines — matched his urgent tone.
The normally bustling tourist destination was mostly quiet with the exception of chirping crickets and Biden’s voice echoing off the brick walls of the historic building, lit up in red, white and blue. At times, hecklers could be heard in the distance chanting “f- Joe Biden.” In a moment that drew applause, Biden addressed the protesters, saying they “have a right to be outrageous. This is a democracy!”
Republicans called Biden’s speech a message of division, and pointed to his campaign promise to bring the country together.
“Joe Biden is the divider-in-chief and epitomizes the current state of the Democrat Party: one of divisiveness, disgust, and hostility towards half the country,” Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.
Biden had originally not planned to run in 2020 but declared that he felt that the nation’s identity and core values were endangered by Trump’s conduct in office, including his equivocating response to the outburst of racist violence in Charlottesville, Va.
The phrase “battle for the soul of the nation” has dominated his rhetoric since, and Biden has declared that the foundation of his presidency was to prove that democracies could still deliver for their people and stand up to rising autocracies across the globe. He vowed to run to heal the wounds opened by Trump’s term and has grown deeply dismayed, aides said, by the political polarization and anger that has only deepened during his own time in the White House.
In recent days, Biden and his top aides have called out the Republican response to the FBI search of Trump’s Palm Beach home. They note how some GOP lawmakers called to defund federal law enforcement while others have warned that violence could follow a possible Trump arrest. To Biden, that was just the latest transgression from a Republican Party he has told aides he barely recognizes — one that has remained in the thrall of Trump and in support of the insurrection.
Terry Kelly, a Biden supporter and retired Union carpenter from King of Prussia, Pa., who came to hear the president speak, said Trump has tried to “overthrow this government. He tried to act like a king.”
“Washington is probably rolling in his grave,” Kelly said. “I say you gotta get the message out and get the truth out, as much as Trump tells lies, you need to get the truth out. That is a tough job.” The speech comes at a moment of surprising political promise for Biden.
In recent weeks, gas prices have fallen, the Covid crisis grew less urgent and his domestic agenda was gradually passed. And his winning streak culminated with the resurrection of a $740 billion reconciliation bill that fulfilled longtime Democratic priorities such as climate change, drug pricing and taxes on corporations.
The 79-year-old president’s poll numbers have risen to their highest point in months and Democrats have grown increasingly bullish about their chances about holding onto the Senate and potentially even the House.
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