The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

5 takeaways from Biden’s forceful Jan. 6 takedown of Trump

On Jan. 6, President Biden said that “we are in a battle for the soul of America” in a speech marking the one-year anniversary of the violent Capitol mob. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

About a month after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and with impeachment suddenly in the rearview, President Biden signaled he was “tired” of talking about Donald Trump. A month later, he responded to a question about the former president by sarcastically saying he missed “my predecessor.” Biden largely avoided mentioning Trump in the following months.

On the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot Thursday, though, Biden made a huge exception. He delivered a muscular speech aimed at repudiating the former president, whose hold on the Republican Party has proved as strong as ever, as well as the allies who fomented and excused the Capitol riot.

Below are some takeaways from Biden’s speech.

1. The Trump focus

Biden’s intention to make his speech not just about the rioters but also about Trump was evident from the first minute of his brief speech and continued throughout. After praising those who withstood the attack and marking the somber occasion, Biden almost immediately linked the attack to Trump — and did so repeatedly, with a palpable anger in his voice.

“For the first time in our history, the president had not just lost an election; he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol,” Biden said. “But they failed. They failed.”

Biden added later: “He has done what no president in American history — the history of this country — has ever, ever done: He refused to accept the results of an election and the will of the American people.”

Then Biden went after Trump’s delayed response.

“What did we not see?” Biden said. “We didn’t see a former president who had just rallied the mob to attack, sitting in the private dining room off the Oval Office in the White House, watching it all on television and doing nothing for hours as police were assaulted, lives at risk, the nation’s capital under siege.”

2. Not just targeting but goading Trump

Much of Biden’s speech seemed aimed at not just criticizing but also goading Trump.

He referred to Trump’s “bruised ego” over losing the 2020 election.

He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interest as more important than his country’s interest and America’s interest, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution,” Biden said.

Biden also referenced the 81 million people who voted for him — a seeming reference to Trump and his allies’ regular invocations of the 74 million people who voted for Trump, and the idea that not further scrutinizing Trump’s baseless voter-fraud claims was tantamount to disregarding those voters.

Biden also pointed to those who might otherwise be allies who clearly didn’t back up Trump’s claims.

“He can’t accept he lost, even though that’s what 93 United States senators, his own attorney general, his own vice president, governors and state officials in every battleground state — have all said he lost,” Biden said. “That’s what 81 million of you did, as you voted for a new way forward.”

Biden punctuated it all toward the end of his speech by labeling Trump what Trump fears perhaps most of all: a loser.

“He was just looking for an excuse, a pretext to cover for the truth: that he’s not just a former president; he’s a defeated former president,” Biden said, emphasizing “defeated” and then repeating it — “defeated by a margin of over 7 million of your votes in a full and free and fair election.”

3. A recognition that being passive doesn’t work

It might have been a special occasion, but it also seemed to mark recognition that Trump is going nowhere, and one can’t pretend otherwise.

At the same time, it echoed previous rebukes of Trump, in that Biden for some reason avoided saying his name. Former president George W. Bush did that in a late-2017 speech against Trump, and on Thursday there was a word curiously missing from Biden’s remarks: “Trump.”

Throughout the speech, Biden merely cited the “former president” — at least 16 times in a little over 10 minutes — as if speaking his name was tantamount to legitimizing him, or that something would happen a la saying “Voldemort.”

In Bush’s case and the cases of other Trump-critical Republicans over the past five years, it made some sense — politically, at least. Maybe people would think these were general points rather than targeted at one person, specifically? Maybe that would reduce the heat from one’s fellow partisans? Perhaps it would be understood as an appeal to better angels rather than a personal political attack?

Biden’s speech, though, was clearly targeted at one person in particular. And if you’re saying “all that I mean,” why not say all that you mean and make it even more explicit?

4. The undersold rebuke

Toward the end, Biden referred to something that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention: the implicit GOP idea that the presidential election was somehow stolen, but not other races.

We’ve also spotlighted this. A few days before Jan. 6, this comparison was pushed by none other than Republican Rep. Chip Roy (Tex.), who had been Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) former chief of staff. If the election results were suspect, Roy argued, why wouldn’t his fellow Republicans have objected to the seating of members who were elected on the same ballots? So Roy forced a vote, and all but two Republicans voted to seat the members.

Here’s Biden:

Just think about this: The former president and his supporters have never been able to explain how they accept as accurate the other election results that took place on Nov. 3 — the elections for governor, United States Senate, House of Representatives — elections in which they closed the gap in the House. They challenged none of that. … Somehow those results were accurate on the same ballot, but the presidential race was flawed. On the same ballot, the same day, cast the same day by the same voters? The only difference: The former president didn’t lose those races; he just lost the one that was his own.

Most of the down-ballot races in the states that Trump was challenging weren’t as close as the presidential race. But Trump was alleging voter fraud on a historic and massive scale. Given that, it’s an extremely valid proposition to ask why those results weren’t treated as suspect by those alleging that Trump might not have lost.

Cruz’s former chief of staff laid the groundwork for making that point more than a year ago. And Biden rightfully raised it Thursday. It has certainly been a selective voter-fraud crusade.

5. What happens now

The question in the aftermath of Biden’s speech is what it means. Was this just about reminding people of an assault on democracy — one day only — or was it about spurring further action?

Democrats have pushed for revamping the nation’s voting laws, citing Republican efforts to rewrite them in the states, but that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Democrats have also shunned GOP leaders’ suggestions that the two sides could meet in the middle, by reviewing the Electoral Count Act that Trump sought to exploit Jan. 6. Democrats have suggested this is a wholly insufficient step.

An alternate political explanation is that Biden understands his agenda probably isn’t going anywhere. That argument suggests voters must be reminded of what happened in 2020 ahead of the 2022 election — when Democrats’ majorities are severely imperiled — and perhaps ahead of a potential 2024 rematch with Trump (or another Democrat running against Trump). When the calendar turns to an election year, after all, legislation tends to grind to a halt, and those concerns take precedence. Biden’s goading of Trump certainly doesn’t discount this theory.

Either way, though, it’s a significant entry in the long-standing fight over democracy. And it was the most significant entry on that front from Biden to date.