By Matt Viser and Ashley Parker,
Joe Biden excoriated President Trump on Monday as a threat to the safety of all Americans, saying he has encouraged violence in the nation’s streets even as he has faltered in handling the coronavirus pandemic.
For his most extensive remarks since violent protests have escalated across the country 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.
“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 painted 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?”
While the speech was delivered amid heightened tensions over race and police conduct, Biden did not outline new policies, instead focusing on making a broader condemnation of Trump.
He called the president a danger to those suffering from the coronavirus, 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?”
“If I were president today, the country would be safer,” Biden said. “And we’d be seeing a lot less violence.”
It was a marked shift for Biden from his convention speech less than two weeks ago, in which 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?”
Biden’s speech Monday afternoon jump-started what is expected to be a caustic and bitter debate between the two men as the general election campaign launches in earnest. It followed two weeks of conventions in which each party seized the spotlight and showcased its candidate. While Biden has attempted to focus his case on the coronavirus, Trump and his allies have increasingly turned toward the violence that has escalated amid racial justice protests across the country.
Trump, over the objections of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D), is planning to travel Tuesday to Kenosha, the site of protests and unrest after the police shooting of a Black man earlier this month.
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 Matters 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 video of a Black man violently pushing a woman on a subway platform. The video was falsely labeled “Black Lives Matters/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 Matters 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, since 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. They plan to highlight Democratic mayors and governors who have refused to accept the help of National Guard troops and who they say have been unwilling to forcefully condemn the protests and violence.
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.
Trump’s argument has been complicated by his refusal to denounce his supporters’ roles in contributing to the violence. On Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to condemn the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, a Trump supporter accused of killing two men during the Kenosha protests after traveling, armed, to the site.
“The president is, again, not going to weigh in on that,” McEnany said.
The president also encouraged supporters who rampaged through downtown Portland before violence that led to one man’s death, tweeting that they were “patriots.”
The national debate over the protesters has helped distract from Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than 180,000 Americans dead. But the administration official cautioned that the current backdrop — widespread protests, coronavirus still raging, an upcoming holiday weekend — is similar to the one seen in late May before Memorial Day, which set the stage for a spike in coronavirus cases.
“We can’t have a significant uptick in cases in three to five weeks,” said the senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal discussions.
Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.