WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden mentioned him early and often. He mentioned him overtly and obliquely. And he mentioned him on a range of issues, from immigration to human rights to Afghanistan.
In Biden’s first solo news conference on Thursday, the specter of former president Donald Trump loomed awkwardly – part foil, part scapegoat and, once, as a punchline.
“My predecessor, oh God I miss him,” Biden said at one point, seeming to channel the just-can’t-quit-him fascination with the former president. A reporter had asked if Biden planned to run again in 2024, noting that unlike Trump, “you haven’t set up a reelection campaign yet, as your predecessor had by this time.”
Biden has repeatedly joked that he is the rare Irishman who doesn’t hold grudges, and the tradition of a new president blaming their predecessor is almost de rigueur. But Biden’s frequent invocation Thursday of Trump – the man who repeatedly attacked both him and his son Hunter during the 2020 presidential campaign – felt decidedly personal.
The current president mentioned the former one by name 10 times, and on more than half a dozen different occasions, sometimes in response to Trump-specific questions and other times unprompted.
The first instance came early in the news conference, as Biden tackled a question about immigration and the surge of migrants – particularly unaccompanied minors – at the nation’s southern border. The president claimed, incorrectly, that the current surge is not more pronounced than during the Trump administration, and more accurately noted that Trump eliminated much of the funding intended to help combat the root causes of illegal immigration.
The challenge of the Biden administration, he continued, is undoing the damage wrought under Trump’s tenure. “So, we’re building back up the capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Trump dismantled,” Biden concluded. “It’s going to take time.”
Biden returned to the topic of Trump and immigration two more times, including when pressed on his own rhetoric and policies, which have – intentionally or not – sent a more welcoming signal to migrants considering making the dangerous journey north.
“Well look, the idea that I’m gonna say – which I would never do – if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re just gonna let him starve to death and stay on the other side, no previous administration did that either except Trump,” Biden said. “I’m not gonna do it. I’m not gonna do it.”
Biden was referring to the Trump era emergency public health order known as Title 42 used to “expel” migrants, including unaccompanied minors, who were generally returned by air to their home countries. Though Trump did use Title 42 to return minors without giving them a chance to seek asylum – something the Biden administration says it will not do – the former president did not simply send them back to Mexico to starve to death or wander the desert, as Biden and some of his top officials have implied.
And Biden also criticized Trump when asked about the immigration policies of his predecessor, which he began unwinding almost immediately upon taking office.
“Rolling back the policies of separating children from their mothers, I make no apology for that,” Biden said. “Rolling back the policies of ‘Remain in Mexico,’ sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in a muddy circumstance with not enough to eat in a – I make no apologies for that. I make no apologies for ending programs that did not exist before Trump became president that have an incredibly negative impact on the law, international law, as well as on human dignity. And so I make no apologies for that.”
The president’s repeated references to Trump represented a stark departure from Biden and his team’s unofficial mantra of not elevating the 45th president and engaging with him as little as possible. It was a strategy they maintained diligently throughout the presidential campaign, and even into the Biden administration; during a CNN town hall a little more than five weeks ago, Biden pointedly called him “the former guy.”
“I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump,” he said at the time.
Yet on Thursday, Biden seemed eager to discuss his predecessor. Addressing the increasing likelihood that he will not meet the May 1 deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the current president returned to the former one.
“The question is how and on what circumstances do we meet that agreement that was made by President Trump to leave under a deal that looks like it’s not being able to be worked out to begin with?” he said.
Biden also referred to Trump – without actually mentioning his name – near the end of a long answer on China, when he turned to human rights. In his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden said, “I made it clear that no American president – at least one did – but no American president ever backed down from speaking out of what’s happening to the Uyghurs, what’s happening in Hong Kong, what’s happening in [the] country.”
“That’s who we are,” Biden continued. “The moment a president walks away from that, as the last one did, is the moment we begin to lose our legitimacy around the world.”
Trump did his part to remain omnipresent, calling into Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show Thursday night to attack Biden’s immigration policies as “inhumane” and boast about his partially built border wall.
But Biden had certain limits Thursday when it came to his 2020 rival. Asked if he expected to run against Trump in 2024, Biden seemed to grow frustrated.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “I don’t even think about – I don’t – I have no idea. I have no idea if there will be a Republican Party, do you?”