It may not be the fight he sought, but taking on Donald Trump is President Joe Biden’s calling.
Biden offered himself as a guardian of American democracy in a visceral speech Thursday discussing the horrors of the Jan. 6 insurrection that sought to overthrow his 2020 election victory. Trump’s refusal to accept the reality of his defeat spawned a conspiracy that came close to shattering the nation’s system of government and continues to ripple through society a year later.
“I did not seek this fight, brought to this Capitol one year ago today, but I will not shrink from it either,” Biden said in his 25-minute address from Statuary Hall, where rioters had roamed one year earlier. “I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation. And I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of democracy.”
Yet even in his own telling, Biden’s presidency has been shaped by and in response to his predecessor.
At age 75 and grieving the recent death of his adult son, the former vice president decided to reenter public life to battle for the “soul of America” after watching Trump deliver praise for some of the white supremacists at a violent protest in Charlottesville in 2017. Biden vanquished fresher and more popular faces in a contentious 2020 Democratic primary on the promise that he was the most capable of unseating Trump. And he was sworn into the office just two weeks after the violent insurrection because he convinced Americans that he could turn the page on a turbulent four years.
Biden didn’t mention the former president by name even once in Thursday’s remarks. But he fired off zingers and reprimands aimed directly at Trump and the party that has increasingly cast itself in his image.
Trump, said Biden, is not just as a former president, but a defeated one whose “bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy.”
He refuted Trump’s “big lie” — three of them, actually — and efforts to continue to sow doubt about the conduct of an election that even the former president’s own attorney general and judicial picks determined to be fair and free of significant misconduct.
He mocked the self-described patriotism of those who attacked law enforcement and breached the Capitol, as well as that of the man who inspired them to do it. “You can’t love your country only when you win,” Biden said.
The anniversary marked Biden’s most forceful condemnation of his predecessor, after a maiden year in office spent trying, often unsuccessfully, to avoid talking about “the former guy.”
“I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump,” he said four weeks into his presidency. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”
But in the past year, Trump has gone from twice-impeached pariah to self-styled president-in-exile, his grip on the GOP stronger now than when he left office. Trump has mounted an aggressive campaign to oust from his party the few Republicans willing to condemn him. And he has amassed a war chest with the aim of retaking the White House in 2024.
It is a paradox for the president: Biden is often at his best when he takes on Trump, yet talking about the former president also serves to elevate him in the national conversation.
There could well be a rematch in 2024. Biden, who has said he intends to seek another term, told ABC last month that he’s even more likely to run again if Trump is on the GOP ticket.
But there’s a simultaneous effort afoot to change how elections are run, and that could portend a very different dynamic in a contested election next time.
Republicans in numerous states are promoting efforts to influence future elections by installing sympathetic leaders in local election posts and they’re backing for elective office some of those who participated in the insurrection. Democrats, for their part, are pushing voting changes that would seek to undo those GOP efforts and enshrine in law other longtime Democratic priorities.
The violence on Jan. 6 was only a small piece of the overall effort by pro-Trump allies to subvert the election. More than 50 lawsuits were filed in battleground states alleging some type of election fraud, a push that failed after judges named to the bench by many different presidents — including Trump himself -— rejected the claims. The Justice Department launched an effort to investigate instances of widespread voter fraud, only to have former Attorney General William Barr tell The Associated Press there was none. And Trump allies made unfounded accusations about voting machines used in many states, including false claims that some were made by a company with ties to Venezuela, among other wild allegations now the subject of defamation litigation.
Despite his insistent speech Thursday, Biden and other administration officials do not generally publicly dwell on the conspiracy theories around the election, in part because it gives fuel to the fire. And it’s widely expected that, despite Biden’s pledge to help push voting rights legislation to completion, he’s not going to look back at the events of 2020 much more. His belief is that he’s more likely to win over Trump supporters by governing, and doing it well, than by constantly re-litigating his presidential win.
As he left the Capitol on Thursday, Biden stopped to explain why he had decided to so forcefully criticize Trump after shying away from it for so long. “The way you have to heal is you have to recognize the extent of the wound.”
“You’ve got to face it,” he added. “That’s what great nations do. They face the truth. Deal with it. And move on.”
Much as Biden would like to move on, though, the future of America’s democracy is now tethered to the events of the 2020 election and the ongoing fallout that show no signs of disappearing.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Zeke Miller has covered the White House for the AP since 2017. Colleen Long covers the White House for AP and has led coverage of the Jan. 6 insurrection and its aftermath.