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Biden breaks his silence: Inside his decision to forcefully denounce Trump

Former president Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines on Oct. 9, 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Throughout the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency, Donald Trump was the name that must not be spoken.

As the former president solidified control over the Republican Party, spread lies about the 2020 election and teased another run for the White House in 2024, Democrats clamored for Biden to forcefully denounce Trump and use the power of his office to try to extinguish what they see as a singular threat to the future of the republic.

But Biden and his aides largely refused to talk about Trump or react to him, calculating that doing so might provoke Trump and risk elevating his standing by giving him and his rhetoric more media attention than they already have.

Inside the White House, meanwhile, the president and his team strategized about when and how to break his silence. They decided to do so, finally, Thursday, as the nation paused to mark the first anniversary of the deadly attack on the Capitol.

Speaking from the Capitol’s iconic Statuary Hall, which last Jan. 6 had been overrun by violent pro-Trump rioters, Biden unburdened himself from the norms of presidential deference and unleashed a torrent of attacks against his immediate predecessor. Though he did not call out Trump by name, Biden made 16 references to the “former president,” whom he squarely blamed for undermining America’s democracy.

“The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Biden said. “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’s remarks do not mark a permanent shift in strategy about how to handle Trump, according to the president’s aides and allies. Rather, they said, Biden felt he had no choice but to directly address Trump’s culpability in the Capitol insurrection last Jan. 6 and the threat he poses to democracy.

On Jan. 6, Congress marked one year since a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

“You can’t talk about what happened on January 6 without talking about the former president’s role in it,” Mike Donilon, a White House senior adviser, said in an interview. “There’s no way to be truthful about what happened there without doing that.”

Biden and his team also calculated that his speech at Thursday’s remembrance event would draw maximum media attention. Indeed, all three broadcast networks as well as Fox News Channel, which does not consistently air Biden’s speeches, carried his remarks live.

White House officials considered a range of options for how to commemorate Jan. 6, including whether Biden would just release a statement or give a more formal address. Aides considered holding an event in the White House to honor law enforcement officials who defended the Capitol before ultimately settling on sending Biden and Vice President Harris to the Capitol for a formal address.

Biden, who was deeply involved in the framing and writing of the speech, worked on it with advisers including Donilon; Jon Meacham, a historian who has advised Biden on messaging; and Vinay Reddy, the White House director of speechwriting.

Even as he assailed his predecessor, Biden tried to maintain a modicum of deference. Asked by reporters why he did not refer to Trump by name, Biden explained, “I did not want to turn it into a contemporary political battle between me and the president. It’s way beyond that.”

Aides said Biden only called Trump “the former president” because that is how he prefers to reference him. “He’s not inclined to talk about his predecessor by name,” said a senior White House official, who was only authorized to speak on the condition of anonymity.

Biden also extended an olive branch to Republicans who have defied Trump’s calls to overturn the 2020 election results — such as Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), both members of the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 — calling them “courageous men and women.”

“Whatever my other disagreements are with Republicans who support the rule of law, and not the rule of a single man, I will always seek to work together with them to find shared solutions where possible,” he said. “Because when we have a shared belief in democracy, then anything is possible, anything.”

Trump had initially planned to hold a news conference Thursday at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, but he canceled it abruptly. He said he plans to address the events of Jan. 6 at a rally in Arizona next weekend.

Trump blasted Biden’s speech, suggesting the president was attempting to distract from the problems he has faced. Trump again falsely claimed Biden’s victory was “rigged,” although no evidence has been found of widespread voter fraud.

“Biden is working hard to try and deflect the incompetent job he is doing, and has done, on the horrible Afghanistan withdrawal (surrender), the Borders, COVID, Inflation, loss of Energy Independence, and much more,” Trump said in a written statement. “Everything he touches turns to failure. That’s what you get when you have a rigged Election.”

Many Democrats have been restless, wanting to see Biden denounce Trump’s subversion of democracy sooner, more forcefully and with repetition.

“I hope this moment does mark a turning point,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said after Biden spoke. “We need to talk about Donald Trump, what his presidency meant for this country.”

Bush said Biden has a responsibility to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to speak out against Trump because more-vulnerable communities who have been active in protesting the former president are at risk from his agenda.

“I look forward to seeing how he pushes harder in making sure that we know that the former president who has the power, the authority to really set the tone for what happens in this country and abroad, what he did, so that we can help to change that,” she said.

Biden allies dismissed these concerns, however. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said the president was at “his finest hour” on Thursday, arguing that it is best to criticize Trump directly only at specific moments.

“I’ve heard people already, they tell me he should have given this speech six months ago,” he said. “Hell, no, he should not have. He should not have detracted from his infrastructure plan, from his rescue plan, from Build Back Better. That is putting too much of your emotions into this rather than dealing with political realities.”

Many Democrats also want to see Biden’s rhetoric matched by action, particularly as it relates to voting rights. The president said the country must be “unyielding in our defense of the right to vote” on Thursday, and he and Harris are scheduled to travel to Atlanta next Tuesday to speak about the need to pass voting rights legislation that has been held up in the Senate.

A coalition of voting rights groups in Georgia said Thursday that Biden and Harris should skip their trip to Atlanta unless they detail a concrete plan to pass voting rights legislation in Congress.

Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, which focuses on registering voters and was part of the effort warning Biden about his trip, said the president has fallen short of his campaign promise to fight anti-democratic efforts.

“Not addressing this clear and present and direct threat on American elections is a fool’s errand,” she said. “It is a recipe for disaster. It is a concession and a pathway for Trump to return to the White House.”

Ufot said Biden has not adequately confronted the Republican Party’s efforts to roll back access to voting.

“What is happening in state legislatures across the country is dangerous and has the ability to destabilize government as we know it,” she said. “And I have yet to see the Biden administration act as if they understand the urgency of the moment that we‘re in.”

When Biden launched his presidential campaign in 2019, his message centered squarely on Trump and the threat he and many Democrats believed the then-president posed to the nation. Biden castigated Trump for his response to the deadly 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

As his campaign proceeded, Biden ratcheted up his rhetoric. He said Trump represented an “existential threat” to American democracy and later supported the House’s vote to impeach Trump for the first time by arguing Trump was “shooting holes in the Constitution.”

Former Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican who crossed party lines to endorse Biden in 2020 because of the Democrat’s unity message, said he has been let down by the president’s inability to fulfill that promise.

“He ran as a conciliator, and he hasn’t been,” Kasich said. “End of story, and maybe he can change and become one.” He argued that Biden’s expansive liberal agenda has alienated large swaths of the country.

Biden’s aides said Thursday’s speech was a continuation of the themes that compelled Biden to run, with the president even repeating the slogan that was at the center of his campaign.

“I said it many times and it’s no more true or real than when we think about the events of January 6th: We are in a battle for the soul of America,” Biden said.

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Jan. 6 select committee, said the threats to democracy extend beyond just Trump and now animate the Republican Party. Raskin said that Democrats, including Biden, must be clear about that.

“He certainly needs to be the leader in our opposition to fascistic politics in America,” Raskin said of Biden. “He laid down the gauntlet in his original campaign when he said that he decided to run when he saw what was taking place in Charlottesville. It was prescient.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who also sits on the Jan. 6 committee, said fellow Democrats should avoid amplifying Trump’s statements, but that the country cannot afford to fully ignore his words and actions. “If we look back years from now, having lost our democracy, people will wonder: How could we have missed such obvious signs?” he said. “How could we have missed him once again endorsing foreign leaders who are tearing down their democracies? And so as we‘ve seen so often in the past, when people tell you they’re going to do terrible things, you need to take them seriously, because particularly this former president is quite determined to do exactly that.”

Biden made clear on Thursday that he agreed. “I will stand in this breach,” he said. “I will defend this nation and allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of democracy.”