Biden was speaking at the Newseum in Washington, where he received the Congressional Patriot Award from the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center. Biden defended the legitimacy and the role of the judiciary, which has been the target of attacks from the president.
In early February, Trump lashed out at a federal judge following a ruling to temporarily block enforcement of his controversial executive order that bars citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries and all refugees from coming to the United States.
“When a country is no longer able to say who can, and who cannot , come in & out, especially for reasons of safety & security - big trouble!” Trump tweeted Feb. 4.
Trump also appeared to question the legitimacy of the federal judge who issued the ruling.
“The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” Trump tweeted, referring to U.S. District Judge James L. Robart in Seattle.
The president continued his criticisms a few days later, when he spoke in front of law enforcement officials in Washington. At that point, the Trump administration had asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to overturn Robart's ruling, and the government's lawyer had just fielded aggressive questions from the appellate judges. A decision against his executive order would be motivated by politics and not the law, he said.
“And I don't ever want to call the court biased, so I won't call it biased. And we haven't made a decision yet,” Trump said Feb. 8. “But courts seem to be so political and it would be so great for our justice system if they would be able to read a statement and do what's right.”
The next day, the appeals court ruled 3-0 to keep the executive order blocked. The judges also forcefully asserted their ability to serve as a check on the president's power, The Washington Post's Matt Zapotosky reported. The judges wrote that any suggestion that they could not “runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.”
Such was Biden's sentiment Wednesday.
“We know the court when it rules, that it has the right to overrule a Congress or a president, and it should be adhered to after appeals are had,” Biden said. “We know that we have to check the power of the presidents, that the legislature, that Congress is as important.”
“When we ignore them, or worse, when we tear them down, we do it at our own peril,” he said of the constitutional requirement of checks and balances. “I must say these beliefs are so basic and so fundamental that I really think average Americans fully get it. … But when they lose confidence in it, that we're a nation of laws and not men, that courts make a difference, that they're the ultimate arbiter and so on, things begin to crack.”
The president's own Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has criticized the attacks on the judiciary, calling them “disheartening” and “demoralizing” during a private meeting with a senator.
Biden also defended another institution: the free press. The Newseum, where he was speaking, is an interactive museum dedicated to journalists and the First Amendment. Etched on the glass panels of the two-story building are the names of 2,291 reporters, photographers and broadcasters from around the world who died while reporting the news.
The free press, despite its many faults, “is a fundamental element and function of our democracy,” Biden said.
“I've taken my fair share of hits from the press. I've been covered by the very best in the business and some of the worst. Some of you press guys are lousy, just like some senators are lousy, like doctors are lousy, lawyers are lousy,” he said. “But it doesn't matter.”
Biden quoted William McRaven, a retired four-star admiral and former Navy SEAL, who, a few days earlier, had said that the president's characterization of the media as “the enemy of the American people” is the “greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.” McRaven, now a chancellor of the University of Texas System, organized and oversaw the highly risky operation that killed Osama bin Laden almost six years ago.
“This is not some left-leaning liberal whatever you want to call it,” Biden said of McRaven. “This guy's a patriot. President Obama risked his entire presidential career on trusting his judgment about Osama bin Laden.”
In a recent blog post, McRaven, who retired from the Navy after nearly four decades, wrote:
“The news media have not always been kind to me. However, I can tell you — as someone who has been to 90 countries and spoken to the press in almost all of them — the United States has the finest press corps in the world, bar none.There is nothing more important to a democracy than an active and engaged press. Is it perfect? Far from it. Does the media make mistakes? Far too often.But flaws and all, I believe the free press is our country’s most important institution.One I am more than happy to defend.One I did, in fact, defend for 37 years.”
The award that Biden received Wednesday recognizes leaders “who demonstrate political courage and exceptional leadership throughout their careers, even in the most partisan times,” according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Amy B Wang, Robert Barnes and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this story.