On the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, President Joe Biden gave a speech condemning former president Donald Trump for his role in inciting violence and undermining democracy, a striking departure for the president who has spent his first year in office avoiding dwelling on his predecessor.
Biden’s speech, delivered on Capitol Hill, carefully avoided naming the former president but focused on keeping the record straight on the violent pro-Trump insurrection and the threat to American democracy that Republicans have stoked in past years. Yet it was clear who he was talking about. He repeatedly brought up the “former president” and the lies he told before, during, and since the 2020 presidential election to try to undermine the results. It was Biden’s clearest and most prolonged denunciation of Trump from the executive office.
“His bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution. He cannot accept that he lost,” Biden said. “For the first time in our history, a president not just lost an election, he tried to prevent a peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob reached the Capitol.”
His decision to focus on the former president comes as Democrats weigh whether anti-Trump messaging could sink them in the midterms and as they try to outline what their party stands for instead of only what they stand against. Ultimately, Biden’s (accurate) portrayal of Trump was an apparent shift to address the ongoing threats to democracy, including restrictive voting laws that ultimately undermine elections across the board.
Biden’s tiptoe around actually naming Trump was obvious. The president himself addressed the decision. “I did not want to turn it into a contemporary political battle between me and the president," he told reporters on Capitol Hill when asked why he didn't say Trump's name. "It's way beyond that.”
In a statement marking the one-year anniversary of the attack, Trump called Biden’s speech “political theater” and a “distraction.”
"It looks like he saw the speech. I guess that's good news. Maybe he learned something about what it looks like to meet the moment in the country,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in response to Trump’s statement during the press briefing Thursday.
Psaki did not immediately respond to an inquiry by BuzzFeed News about some of the thinking around the speech, including whether Biden might talk about Trump more as the midterms approach.
"Biden's right. This is a crisis in democracy,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a progressive consultant with Left Flank Strategies. “Coming up with an actual plan to solve it, which we don't have a ton of time left before the midterm elections, I think that's like a really crucial thing that a lot of people, especially progressives, feel a lot of urgency about." He added that Biden’s most direct attempt to hold Trump accountable came as “a welcome development.”
Perhaps no instance best encapsulates how striking it is for Biden to focus a speech so heavily on Trump than a comment he made last month — “I don’t think about the former president” — when asked about the report that Trump tested positive for COVID before a September 2020 debate.
Biden has previously addressed Trump on certain matters. In December, he pointed out that Trump had taken a COVID-19 booster shot — "one of the few things he and I agree on" — before going on to condemn "companies and personalities" peddling lies about the pandemic. He obviously also struck a direct contrast on the campaign trail not only in his own election but in other contests since.
"You can't tell the story of Jan. 6 without talking about the former president,” said Addisu Demise, an Oakland-based Democratic strategist. “[Trump] invited people to Washington, incited them to violence, I would say, and in my mind it would be a denial of history to erase him from the day.”
Demise said he doesn't expect Biden's focus on Trump to carry into the coming weeks and months as Democrats prepare for the midterms and the next presidential election, because it would distract from talking about his own agenda and achievements. But rather, he said, it would have been "malpractice" not to talk about Trump's role in the attempted insurrection on its anniversary.
Looking at the bigger picture, though, Demise said it wouldn't make sense for Biden to rag on Trump, who, despite his ongoing political pull, should not be the focus of this presidency.
"He was elected in large part to turn the page on the Trump era. And if he continues to focus on that, it takes him away from his job, which is to focus not on yesterday, but on tomorrow," Demise said.
Democrats have spent a lot of time working to keep the record straight on the events of Jan. 6 against efforts by Republicans to rewrite history, and Biden’s speech was true to that. From the start, Democrats built a detailed case illustrating Trump’s role in inciting the violence, including during the impeachment trial last year — which he was acquitted of by Republicans. Their efforts continue today: One of the commemorative events Democrats are hosting on the anniversary of the insurrection is a moderated discussion featuring the Democratic leaders of each chamber of Congress and renowned historians.
"I think using this anniversary to stand up for our country, our ideals, and what we believe in as a nation is critical,” said Scott Mulhauser, a Democratic strategist and former Biden adviser. “The scars of that day still haven't healed for so many, and part of the way we recover as a country is to ensure that our democracy stands."