PITTSBURGH — Accusing President Donald Trump of “poisoning” the nation’s values, Joe Biden condemned violence at recent protests Monday and blamed Trump as the battle over who’s at fault and who can keep Americans safe emerged as the sharpest dividing line for the campaign’s final weeks.
Biden, in his most direct attacks yet, accused Trump of causing the divisions that have ignited the violence, delivering an uncharacteristically blistering speech and distancing himself from radical forces involved in altercations.
He said of Trump, “He doesn’t want to shed light, he wants to generate heat, and he’s stoking violence in our cities. He can’t stop the violence because for years he’s fomented it.”
Biden also tried to refocus the race on what has been its defining theme — Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has left more than 180,000 Americans dead — after a multi-day onslaught by the president’s team to make the campaign about the violence rattling American cities.
Biden himself has largely remained near his home in Delaware to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but he stepped out in a new phase of his campaign on Monday, in a speech in Pittsburgh and a brief stop at a local firehouse.
Trump and his campaign team believe that the more the national discourse is about anything other than the virus, the better it is for the president. They have seized upon the recent unrest in Portland and Kenosha, Wisconsin, leaning hard into a defense of law and order while suggesting that Biden is powerless to stop extremists.
Biden rejected the charge, firmly decrying the clashes.
Set aside on Monday were his lofty appeals about the “soul of the nation,” a staple of his usual stump speech, replaced by an urgent call for action and and his fierce accusation that Trump was a “toxic presence in this nation for four years” who was “poisoning the values this nation has always held dear, poisoning our very democracy.”
The president and his team continued to hammer away on what they believe is a powerful electoral argument, contending that Biden is in thrall to leftist forces and emphasizing chaotic protest images they believe could send worried suburban and senior voters back to Trump’s column.
“Just watched what Biden had to say,” Trump tweeted soon after the former vice president concluded his remarks in Pittsburgh. “To me, he’s blaming the Police far more than he’s blaming the Rioters, Anarchists, Agitators, and Looters, which he could never blame or he would lose the Radical Left Bernie supports!”
Trump also plans to visit Kenosha on Tuesday despite pleas from Wisconsin’s Democratic governor to stay away for fears of sparking tumult in a city where tensions continue to simmer.
Biden has been pushed by worried Democrats — including some voices inside his own campaign — to deal with the violence head on and at greater length, though he had previously condemned it. With Trump pounding the issue in his convention speech, which was then followed by more bloodshed over the weekend, many in Biden’s party, still shell-shocked by 2016, urged the former vice president to get ahead of the rare issue that has broken through the national focus on the pandemic.
But Biden didn’t just play defense, he went on the attack, lambasting Trump not just as inciting violence but for his ties to Russia and his handling of the nation’s economy.
Following up his Democratic convention address, in which he didn’t mention Trump’s name Biden on Monday invoked Trump’s name 32 times, directly assailing the president in remarks that seemed intended to silence worries in his party and the Beltway’s chattering class. He pulled no punches about the violence.
“It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted,” Biden said.
He also accused Trump of being too “weak” to call on his own supporters to stop acting as “armed militia.” And he leaned on his own 47-year career in politics to defend himself against Republican attacks.
“You know me. You know my heart. You know my story, my family’s story. Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”
He declared that that even as Trump is “trying to scare America,” what’s really causing the nation’s fear is Trump’s own failures. He pointed to a rise in murders this past year, the 180,000 dead Americans from the coronavirus and the economic damage done by the pandemic.
“You want to talk about fear? They’re afraid they’re going to get COVID, they’re afraid they’re going to get sick and die,” Biden said.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, the National Guard has been deployed to quell demonstrations in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, that have resulted in some looting, vandalism and the shooting deaths of two protesters. And this weekend, one of Trump’s supporters was shot at a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, prompting multiple tweets from Trump.
Trump and other speakers at last week’s Republican National Convention frequently highlighted incidents of violence at protests that were sparked by the police killing of George Floyd last May, predicting that if Biden is elected in November such incidents will become the norm.
For months, Trump has tried to distract from the pandemic, and at times he seemed to receive slight positive bumps in support when touting the possible economic recovery. But other attempts to change the narrative with cultural wedge issues fell flat, including a defense of Confederate monuments, and polling suggested that Trump was far out of step with the Black Lives Matter movement, which enjoyed wide public support.
Though a law and order push backfired when the president cleared Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters in early June, the Trump campaign has seized on the violence as a means to drive up Biden’s negatives and bring home disenchanted suburban voters.
The former vice president’s speech Monday appeared to jump-start the general election campaign a week ahead of its normal Labor Day kickoff, as both Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, will begin venturing out despite the pandemic. Biden, who may make his own visit to Wisconsin this week, has missed the glad-handing of a traditional campaign and managed to have a brief moment of retail politics Monday when he delivered pizzas to Pittsburgh firefighters.
The setting for Biden’s speech was no accident: Pennsylvania, his native state, is a vital battleground with both candidates competing for its working class voters. Trump, whose campaign is focusing on the state’s rural counties, eked out a 44,000-vote win in 2016 but Biden, who is running strong in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia suburbs, also made certain on Monday to make a pitch on an issue of local interest.
“I am not banning fracking, no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me,” he said.
Jaffe reported from Washington. Lemire reported from New York.