WASHINGTON — Joe Biden, in a major speech on civil unrest and protests across the country, delivered a blunt attack Tuesday on President Donald Trump for being “more interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care.”
Biden likened Trump to Southern segregationists of the 1960s, accusing him of exploiting national divisions for political gain, and he criticized him for staging a “photo op” in front of a church across the street from the White House on Monday evening after police and National Guard units cleared the way by using force against peaceful protesters.
When police disperse “peaceful protesters … from the doorstep of the people’s house, the White House — using tear gas and flash grenades — in order to stage a photo op at one of the most historic churches in the country, or at least in Washington D.C., we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle,” Biden said.
Noting that Trump carried a Bible before cameras, Biden said, “I just wish he opened it once in a while instead of brandishing it.”
The speech, carried live by cable networks, is the latest in a series of statements made by Biden in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the resulting protests against police brutality that have broken out across the country.
Biden has been trying to present himself, through carefully orchestrated events, as more presidential than Trump, taking the kinds of unifying, calming steps a president should in a crisis.
On Monday, for example, he held a roundtable discussion with four mayors to talk about how they are handling the tensions and violence in their cities.
In the 22-minute speech in Philadelphia, Biden compared Trump’s Twitter attacks on protesters, including one threatening the use of “vicious dogs,” to language used by segregationists to oppose the civil rights revolution a half-century ago.
“They weren’t the words of a president,” he said. “They were the kind of words Bull Connor would have used unleashing his dogs on innocent women and children,” he said, referring to the late police commissioner of Birmingham, Ala.
More than in previous comments on the Floyd killing, Biden explicitly made a pitch for his presidential campaign and what he would do if elected.
“I promise you this. I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate,” he said.
“I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country — not use them for political gain. I’ll do my job and take responsibility. I won’t blame others. I’ll never forget that the job isn’t about me.”
For Trump, he said, “narcissism has become more important than the nation’s well-being that he leads.”
Biden also called on Congress to take immediate action, not wait for the inauguration of a new president. He urged passage within a month of legislation to outlaw the use of chokeholds by police, set a national standard for police use of force, and more.
Such legislation is unlikely to clear a Republican Senate where Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky controls the agenda.
“If Mitch McConnell can bring in the United States Senate to confirm Trump’s unqualified judicial nominees, who will run roughshod over our Constitution, now it’s time to pass legislation that will give true meaning to our constitutional promise of equal protection under the law,” Biden said.
As violence and vandalism have spread, Biden has aimed to strike a balance between embracing the legitimacy of protesters’ grievances while calling for an end to street violence.
“There’s no place for violence, no place for looting or destroying property or burning churches or destroying businesses, many of them built by the very people of color who, for the first time in their lives, are beginning to realize their dreams and build wealth for their families,” he said.
“Nor is it acceptable for our police sworn to protect and serve all people to escalate tension,” he said. “We need to distinguish between legitimate peaceful protests and … violent destruction.”
Biden linked the frustrations of protesters to the economic crisis engulfing the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” are emblematic of systemic racism that has been worsened by the health and economic crises.
“They speak to a nation where too often just the color of your skin puts your life at risk,” he said. “They speak to a nation where more than 100,000 people have lost their lives to a virus and 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment — with a disproportionate number of these deaths and job losses concentrated in the black and minority communities.”
The speech, given before cameras in Philadelphia’s City Hall, marks the first time in almost three months Biden has delivered an address outside his home in Wilmington, Del., where he has been sequestered because of the COVID-19 pandemic and speaking mostly via livestream from his basement rec room.
The campaign allowed limited access to a small group of reporters, all of whom had their temperatures taken outside the building and wore masks. A handful of local elected officials attended, including Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, according to the campaign.
Many Democrats have been eager to see Biden step out and make more live appearances to raise his visibility at a time when Trump is under fire and, until his church visit Monday night, lying low in the White House.
Biden has increasingly been trying to make appearances in the nearby community by, for example, laying a wreath at a cemetery on Memorial Day and meeting with black leaders in a Wilmington church Monday.
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