CHARLESTON, S.C. — Joe Biden and Cory Booker took on President Trump, racial division and white supremacy in a pair of unusually impassioned speeches Wednesday, though their contrasting approaches reflected differences among Democrats on the path forward as the nation reels from the weekend’s mass shootings.
Biden largely focused on Trump, suggesting that the president’s removal was the crucial step in restoring the country. Booker, in contrast, spent much of his time exploring the nation’s painful racial history in broad terms, depicting Trump as more symptom than cause and refraining from mentioning his name.
“In both clear language and in code, this president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation,” the former vice president said. “His low-energy, vacant-eyed mouthing of the words written for him condemning white supremacists this week fooled no one. The energetic embrace of this president by the darkest hearts, the most hate-filled minds in this country, says it all.”
Booker, a senator from New Jersey, said that “bigotry was written into our founding documents” and that “white supremacy has always been a problem in our American story,” adding that better impulses are also part of that story.
The twin speeches — coming as the country deals not only with tragedies in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, but also with political leaders’ inability to find common ground — were delivered on a day that Trump visited the shooting sites while also taking potshots at the Democrats.
Booker spoke from the pulpit of Emanuel AME Zion church, which will forever be linked to the worst hate-based mass shooting in this southern city’s history, when nine people were killed by a white supremacist in 2015. Booker excoriated the bigots he said had made America “fertile ground” for killings fueled by bias and animus, but he also admonished those he said mistakenly believe they can sit on the sidelines in the fight against hatred.
“We are not called to tolerate injustice; we are called to combat it,” Booker said. “We are not called to tolerate each other; we are called to love one another. . . . As much as much as white supremacy manifests itself in dangerous and deadly acts of terror, it is perpetuated by what is too often a willful ignorance or dangerous tolerance of its presence in our society.”
Booker and Biden were the latest Democratic candidates to offer a mix of solace and policy in the aftermath of the massacres, trying to show what kind of leader they would be for the nation and to create a contrast with Trump’s divisiveness. Biden, as the polling leader, and Booker, one of two African Americans in the field, are especially resonant voices in the Democratic field on the subject.
Arriving in Burlington, Iowa, Biden scrapped his planned remarks to focus on Trump and gun violence. He went without his normal campaign attire of an open-collared shirt, instead opting for a coat and tie.
Biden launched his campaign in April by denouncing the violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s muted response to it, but he has not always emphasized that initial message, and Wednesday’s speech marked some of his sharpest rhetoric of his campaign.
Citing Trump’s inaugural address, which promised an end to “American carnage,” Biden said it is the president who is “fueling a literal carnage in America.” He added: “I wish I could say that this all began with Donald Trump and will end with him. But I can’t and I won’t.”
The difference this time, he said, is that the country lacks a leader with the ability or desire to rise to the occasion.
“Trump readily — eagerly — attacks Islamic terrorism, but can barely bring himself to use the word ‘supremacist,’ ” Biden said. “Even when he says it, he doesn’t appear to believe it. He seems more concerned about losing their votes than beating back this hateful ideology.”
Biden listed other presidents who took a moral stance that he said superseded their political leanings, like George H.W. Bush renouncing his NRA membership and George W. Bush visiting a mosque shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“We don’t have that today,” Biden said. “We have a president who has aligned himself with the darkest forces in this nation. And that makes winning the battle for the soul of this nation that much harder.”
Trump hit back at Biden, suggesting among other things that the press would suffer and China would gain if Biden were to capture the White House.
“Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech,” Trump tweeted as he traveled between the grieving communities of Dayton and El Paso. “Sooo Boring! The LameStream Media will die in the ratings and clicks with this guy. It will be over for them, not to mention the fact that our Country will do poorly with him. It will be one big crash, but at least China will be happy!”
When he read the tweet, Biden paused. “He should get a life,” he said.
While Biden focused largely on Trump — though he stopped short of directly calling him a white nationalist or racist, as some candidates have done — Booker told the crowd at Emanuel AME Zion church that racial divisions have existed since the nation’s infancy.
“Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny — these tactics aren’t a new perversion of our politics. They’ve been ingrained in our politics since our founding,” Booker said. “Generations of politicians have used fear of the other for political gain, and that is certainly the case today.”
Trump condemned white supremacy in brief remarks to the nation Monday, while also saying the country needs to do more to address mental health issues, “gruesome and grisly video games,” and the media’s glorification of violence.
On Wednesday, Trump dismissed critics who say his words about immigration and race pave the way for massacres like the one in El Paso. A manifesto attributed to the man who police say killed 22 people echoed Trump’s language in such phrases as “Hispanic invasion.”
“I think my rhetoric brings people together,” Trump said, adding that he is “concerned about the rise of any group of hate.” He also said his loudest critics were motivated by political gain.
The other Democratic candidates have also weighed in on the shootings. Most have advocated reinstituting the assault weapons ban that was a part of the 1994 crime bill but has since expired.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) has said that, if elected, she’d give Congress 100 days to pass comprehensive gun legislation, and if it failed to do so, she would take executive action to impose new restrictions. Among other things, she said she would expand background checks and revoke the licenses of gun dealers who break the law.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) has said she would do “everything I can by executive order” to strengthen gun-control laws, and has also argued that the Senate needs to end the filibuster to change gun regulations. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has joined Democrats in calling for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to cancel the rest of August recess and allow members to vote on new gun laws, something McConnell shows no inclination to do.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is from El Paso and suspended activities in his presidential campaign to return to his hometown, made gun control a major part of his 2018 Senate run, saying he’d stop the sale of “weapons of war.”
The plans mark a stark shift from a period not long ago when Democrats rarely mentioned gun control for fear of alienating firearm owners. Booker has proposed requiring gun owners to obtain a license in much the same way that travelers obtain a passport, while Biden on Monday advocated a federal gun buyback.
But the candidates are not limiting themselves to the nuts and bolts of legislation, seeking rather to present themselves as figures who can restore an authentic moral voice to the nation’s leadership after what they see as an ethically bankrupt presidency. Both Biden and Booker nodded to that issue in their speeches Wednesday.
Throughout the campaign, Biden has focused more than his rivals on the notion of Trump as a singularly malevolent force, while most of his opponents depict the president as the culmination of deeper problems in American society, suggesting that removing him is only the first of the changes necessary to restore the country’s values.
Booker on Wednesday chose a particularly evocative venue for his remarks. In June 2015, a white supremacist entered the Emanuel church during a Bible study session and gunned down eight worshipers, along with the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The killer had featured a Confederate flag in his online postings, and the tragedy launched a movement to remove such flags, and other Confederate symbols, from public places.
Then-President Barack Obama gave the eulogy for Pinckney, ending by unexpectedly breaking into a rendition of “Amazing Grace” before lauding Pinckney and other victims as people “who found that grace.” It has been viewed as one of the most memorable moments of his presidency.
Booker mentioned the nine victims as he spoke at the church that Charleston residents affectionately call Mother Emanuel. On the campaign trail, Booker has also highlighted violence that regularly occurs on the streets of his hometown, Newark.
He said Wednesday that the two-century-old church, with its stately stained-glass windows and wood paneling, is a case study not just in American tragedy but in how to endure it. The sanctuary has been burned down by white supremacists, who thought civil rights leaders used it for strategy meetings.
“When evil showed itself in this church basement four years ago, this church again showed what faith in action looks like,” Booker said. “After those nine souls were taken, this community, this church, showed us how not to allow hate, when it comes into our lives, to take root in our souls.”