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Biden calls Trump ‘a toxic presence’ who is encouraging violence in America

Joe Biden speaks Monday in Pittsburgh.
Joe Biden speaks Monday in Pittsburgh. (Alan Freed/Reuters)
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Joe Biden excoriated President Trump on Monday as a threat to the safety of all Americans, saying he was a “toxic presence” who has encouraged violence in the nation’s streets even as he has faltered in handling the coronavirus pandemic.

The direct repudiation of Trump came as Biden and the president launched into a caustic debate over violent protests that have escalated across the country in recent days, thrusting the presidential campaign into a new and more combustible phase centered on which man represents the biggest danger to America.

For his most extensive remarks since violence has broken out in recent days, Biden traveled to Pittsburgh and struck a centrist note, condemning both the destruction in the streets and Trump for creating a culture that he said has exacerbated it.

Speaking in a crucial electoral battleground, the Democratic presidential nominee appeared to aim his remarks at anxious members of his party, as well as voters who may have reconsidered their support of him in light of Trump’s relentless effort to paint Biden as a candidate willing to tolerate lawlessness.

The Washington Post toured the Kenosha, Wis., neighborhood where the latest police shooting of a Black resident sparked protests across the nation. (Video: Sam Paakkonen/The Washington Post)

“I want to be very clear about all of this: Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting,” Biden said. “It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”

The former vice president also rejected the caricature that Trump and his allies have crafted of him as someone who holds extremist views and has helped fuel the anger in urban centers across the country. “You know me. You know my heart. You know my story, my family’s story,” Biden said. “Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”

“I want a safe America,” he said. “Safe from covid, safe from crime and looting, safe from racially motivated violence, safe from bad cops. Let me be crystal clear — safe from four more years of Donald Trump.”

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Aug. 31 said President Trump is stoking violence in American cities. (Video: The Washington Post)

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A few hours later, speaking at the White House, Trump sought to place the blame on Biden, ridiculing his “strange speech” because he did not specifically repudiate leftist protesters. (Biden on Sunday said in a statement, “I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right.”)

At the same time, Trump refused to criticize his own supporters, defending Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Trump supporter who is accused of killing two people and injuring a third with an AR-15-style rifle after he traveled to a protest in Kenosha, Wis. “He was trying to get away,” Trump said, echoing the argument of Rittenhouse’s defense attorneys. “He probably would’ve been killed.”

The president similarly defended members of a Trump-backing caravan of trucks and cars that took on protesters Saturday night in Portland, firing paintballs and other projectiles at them as they roared past. “Paint is a defensive mechanism,” Trump said. “Paint is not bullets.” A member of a right-wing group was fatally shot later that night.

The president also seemed to express sympathy with police officers who kill unarmed civilians, many of them Black, in the line of duty, saying they have just a split second to make a decision and sometimes “choke.”

The back-and-forth between Trump and Biden, seething with animosity, seemed to launch the general-election campaign in earnest, following two weeks of conventions in which each party separately seized the spotlight to showcase its candidate. The outbreak of harsh rhetoric comes at a crucial stretch before the first presidential debates a month from now, and at a moment when Biden is attempting to focus on the coronavirus and Trump is searching for a diversion from his management of the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden did not outline new policies during his Pittsburgh speech, instead focusing on making a broader condemnation of Trump. He called the president a danger to those suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, to anyone in search of a job or struggling to pay rent, to voters worried about Russian interference in the upcoming election and to those worried about their own safety amid unrest.

“Donald Trump wants to ask the question: Who will keep you safer as president? Let’s answer that question,” Biden said. “When I was vice president, violent crime fell 15 percent in this country. We did it without chaos and disorder.”

Pointing to a nationwide homicide rate rising 26 percent this year, Biden asked, “Do you really feel safer under Donald Trump?”

He went on: “If I were president today, the country would be safer. And we’d be seeing a lot less violence.”

For Biden, it was a marked shift from his convention speech less than two weeks ago, when he never named Trump in his remarks. During his speech Monday, he mentioned Trump’s name 32 times. “Donald Trump has been a toxic presence in our nation for four years,” Biden said. “Will we rid ourselves of this toxin? Or will we make it a permanent part of our nation’s character?”

Although Biden’s speech forced him to veer from discussing the coronavirus, he repeatedly attempted to tie the crises together as markers of presidential mismanagement.

“More cops have died from covid this year than have been killed on patrol,” Biden said.

Biden added that he was not criticizing police wholesale. “I know most cops are good and decent people,” he said.

He also went out of his way to restate his position on fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique used in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to access underground natural gas and oil reserves.

“I am not banning fracking,” Biden said. “Let me say that again: I am not banning fracking — no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.” Biden, who in the past has occasionally muddied his own position, opposes any new fracking permits for federal lands or water but would allow existing operations to continue.

Trump, over the objections of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D), is planning to travel Tuesday to Kenosha, where sporadic protests and unrest have occurred since the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, on Aug. 23. The president is not planning to meet with Blake’s family. Trump said the family of Blake, who was shot seven times by police, wanted a lawyer present, which the president called “inappropriate.”

As clashes between armed groups and leftist protesters turn deadly, police face complaints of tolerating vigilantes

Trump’s campaign envisions the trip as a chance to support small-business owners and local law enforcement personnel who have been threatened by the protests, but local officials said they wanted him to delay the visit.

“You have a community that’s in the process of trying to heal,” Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian (D) said at a news briefing Monday. “It would’ve been nice if it had waited a while . . . but it is what it is.”

Kenosha County Executive Jim Kreuser echoed Antaramian, saying it was “not the ideal time” for a presidential visit. He noted that if Biden had wanted to visit, he would take the same view.

“Things have been relatively calm, so let’s just hope it stays that way,” Kreuser said.

In focusing on the unrest, Trump is hoping to expose tensions between Biden’s coalition of White suburban voters in the upper Midwest and the Black Lives Matter protesters in the urban streets. Some of Biden’s allies want him to talk more about the underlying reasons for the protest movement, while others fear that could alienate some of the suburban voters they believe are needed to defeat Trump.

Trump has used social media to deepen the country’s divisions — often with misleading statements — rather than playing the more traditional role of uniter in chief during times of civil unrest. Casting himself as a “LAW & ORDER” leader, Trump has taken to Twitter to accuse Democratic mayors and governors of losing control of their cities; to warn that the only way to “stop the violence in high crime Democrat run cities is through strength”; and to lambaste Biden as being “weak on CRIME” in an effort to appease the “Radical Left voter.”

On Sunday, Trump retweeted a video of a Black man violently pushing a woman on a subway platform. The video was falsely labeled “Black Lives Matter/Antifa,” the latter a reference to the loose anti-fascist views associated with some on the far left. In fact, the video was from nearly a year ago, and the offender had no known ties to the Black Lives Matter or antifa movements.

Others in Trump’s orbit — including the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. — have also sought to cast the protests and violence as a preview of what is to come if Biden wins in November, tweeting out links to stories on the unrest with the hashtag #BidenRiots.

That, Biden and his supporters argue, is a bit of messaging jujitsu, because the unrest is roiling Trump’s America. But a senior administration official said Trump and his team believe they can transform Biden into a totem for far-left protesters and pin what they say is Democratic inaction on him.

Biden’s remarks Monday, in which he castigated looting and arson — not for the first time — appeared to be an effort to inoculate him against those claims.

On a call with reporters Monday morning, Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller repeatedly said that Biden and his campaign had been “taken over” by “the radical left-wing mob.”

“This is a political deal that Biden’s cut with his radical left-wing mob that has taken over his campaign, and he’s too weak to do anything about it,” Miller said on the call. In an interview, Miller said that theme will be part of the focus of the ads the campaign is running. In one 30-second spot, called “Takeover,” a narrator warns ominously: “The radical left has taken over Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. Don’t let them take over America.”

“People do not want to see these radical left-wing groups like antifa run amok on Democrat-run urban centers,” Miller said.

Some Democrats have grown anxious over Biden’s dispassionate approach over the past week, in which he released several statements but did not fully channel the outrage that sparked the protests or the indignation they felt was needed to respond to Trump.

“I’ve been encouraged listening to the vice president’s words — calming, unifying, while at the same time speaking to the truth of the challenges of systemic racism and police violence,” Steve Benjamin (D), the mayor of Columbia, S.C., said after Biden’s speech. “He’s struck the right tone.”

Khary Penebaker, a Democratic National Committee member from Wisconsin, said he largely agreed with Biden but also wished that national leaders would do more to expose the underlying reasons for the looting.

“Instead of worrying about property damage, worry about why people are hurt, angry and pissed off,” Penebaker said. “We can rebuild a building. We can’t rebuild Jacob Blake’s spine.”

Toluse Olorunnipa and Mark Berman contributed to this report.