PHOENIX - President Biden on Thursday sharply rebuked former president Donald Trump and his supporters for continued attempts to undermine American democracy, delivering one of his most explicit warnings that Trump poses a threat to democratic principles and institutions.
In a marked shift, Biden hit Trump head-on, disposing of his usual pattern of oblique references to his predecessor, who holds a wide lead in the Republican primary to face Biden in next year’s presidential election. Biden called Trump out by name before detailing what he described as his anti-democratic behavior: relentless attacks on the press, praise for the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attackers, plans to consolidate power in the executive branch and a desire to fire civil servants who are not sufficiently loyal to him.
“There’s something dangerous happening in America now,” Biden said. “There’s an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs in our democracy.” He added, “We should all remember: Democracies don’t have to die at the end of a rifle. They can die when people are silent, when they fail to stand up or condemn the threats to democracy.”
As part of the speech, Biden also announced plans to use federal funds to help construct the McCain Library, embracing the legacy of the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to argue that democracy is not a partisan issue. Biden, who lauded McCain’s willingness to buck party orthodoxy on major issues, held up the former senator as a counter-example to Trump and other Republicans, whom he criticized for their “deafening” silence on the former president’s continued threats to democracy.
“I’ve come to honor the McCain Institute and Library because they’re home of the proud Republican who put his country first,” Biden said. “Our commitment should be no less because democracy should unite all Americans, regardless of political affiliation.”
Biden’s speech appeared designed in part to create a contrast with several tumultuous Republican-led events this week: a presidential debate rife with insults and interruptions, an impeachment inquiry lacking direct evidence of wrongdoing and a looming government shutdown amid Republicans’ failure to agree on a spending plan.
Trump, who has been indicted on 91 felony counts, including charges that stem from allegedly seeking to overturn the 2020 election and mishandling classified documents, remains the overwhelming front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Biden has refused to comment on Trump’s criminal cases, pointing to the independence of the Department of Justice, but White House aides say Biden understands he cannot talk about ongoing threats to democracy without pinpointing Trump’s role.
“Trump says the Constitution gave him the right to do whatever he wants as president,” Biden said. “I’ve never even heard a president say that in jest. Not guided by the Constitution or by common service and decency toward our fellow Americans, but by vengeance and vindictiveness.”
In posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, the Trump campaign argued that Biden is the true enemy of American institutions because his party is trying to silence free speech. “The Radical Left Democrats, now led by Joe Biden, are the greatest threat to democracy the United States of America has ever faced,” the posts said. “Biden’s claims that conservatives are a ‘threat to democracy’ are nothing but projection.”
Biden’s speech was his fourth major address on democracy, which Biden said was “the central issue” of his presidency.
“This MAGA threat is a threat to the brick and mortar of our democratic institutions, but it’s also a threat to the character of our nation that gives our Constitution life,” he said.
As a candidate for president in 2020, Biden centered democracy in his campaign pitch, castigating Trump as a unique threat to the American experience. Since taking office, he has tried to use the bully pulpit to remind Americans of the ongoing threats to democracy in the United States and rally citizens to protect it.
Although Thursday’s speech was an official White House event, the president made clear protecting democracy will also be a central theme of his reelection campaign. Holding the speech in Arizona, a swing state Biden won in 2020 by just over 10,000 votes, the president looked to make overtures to independents and Republicans disaffected by Trump.
Biden’s first major address on democracy came on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, when Biden spoke from the U.S. Capitol. In that speech, Biden did not mention Trump by name but made 16 references to the “former president,” whom he squarely blamed for undermining America’s democracy.
He then traveled to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and more directly took on Trump, saying he and his followers “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” It was a remarkable assertion from a sitting U.S. president to pinpoint his predecessor and his followers as a grave threat to the stability of the 246-year American experiment.
In his third address on democracy, just before the 2022 midterm elections, Biden warned that candidates who refuse to accept legitimate election results could set the nation on a “path to chaos.”
Cindy McCain, the senator’s widow who served as Biden’s ambassador to the U.N. agencies for food and agriculture, introduced Biden on Thursday, thanking the president for honoring her late husband and the causes he had championed. McCain’s endorsement of Biden in 2020 was seen as a pivotal boost that helped him become the first Democrat to win Arizona since 1996.
“John would have hated we’ve made this occasion just about him, but instead, he would have wanted to make it about what is most important,” Cindy McCain said. “John’s constant mantra [was] of service to a cause greater than one’s self interest, and this will be embodied here within this project for nurturing the flame of democracy.”
Thursday’s speech came as Biden’s campaign is also stepping up its attacks on Trump, including several statements and a television ad connected to the former president’s recent visit to Michigan. One statement said Trump’s “incoherent” speech there was a “pathetic, recycled attempt to feign support for working Americans.”
At one point on Thursday, Biden was interrupted by a heckler demanding that he declare a climate emergency. “I tell you what, if you shush up, I’ll meet with you immediately after this,” Biden said.
When he continued his speech with the phrase, “Democracy is never easy,” he added as an aside, “as we just demonstrated.”
Biden said funding from the American Rescue Plan - the $1.9 trillion legislation passed to help the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic - would be used to construct the library in partnership with the McCain Institute and Arizona State University.
The late senator helped create the McCain Institute in 2012, donating nearly $9 million in funds left over from his unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign.
In 2019, a year after the senator’s death, Cindy McCain spoke of her desire to build a library in the senator’s honor, adding that it was not clear what the funding sources for the project would be. Biden’s announcement on Thursday answered that question, and White House officials said the new library will provide education, work and health-monitoring programs to underserved communities in the state.
In an interview at Cindy McCain’s home in Phoenix after the event, she and the senator’s son, Jack, said Biden’s remarks reflected the senator’s commitment to patriotism, respect for democratic institutions and leadership driven by civility, even amid disagreement.
“The only way to better the country is to work together,” McCain said of her husband’s philosophy.
She said that the library would serve as a place to learn and experience the senator’s approach up close, and where people might “consider running for office themselves or being a part of the public debate themselves.”
Neither Cindy nor Jack McCain intends to get involved in the 2024 election, they said, citing their jobs.
Jack, who has both of his father’s flight jackets from his days in the U.S. Navy - one with a patch from when he was a lieutenant and another that has a squadron patch - said he would like the library to exhibit one of them. “It was an iconic piece of his political identity,” he said.
Biden and McCain served together in the Senate for more than two decades, developing an unusually close relationship and in retrospect coming to represent a period of greater comity among figures from different parties. McCain requested that Biden speak at his funeral in August 2018, while his family made it clear they wanted Trump, who was then the sitting president, to stay away. “All politics is personal - it’s all about trust,” Biden said in the eulogy. “And I trusted John with my life.”
Trump, in contrast, regularly lashed out at McCain. In a March 2019 tirade in the Oval Office, Trump called McCain’s vote against repealing Obamacare a “disgrace,” adding, “I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be.”
Earlier this month, while in Vietnam, Biden visited a memorial to McCain, who was held captive in a Hanoi prison for more than five years during the Vietnam War.
“Very few of us will ever be asked to endure what John McCain endured,” Biden said. “But all of us are being asked right now, what will we do to maintain our democracy? Will we, as John wrote, never quit? Will we not hide from history, but make history? Will we put partisanship aside and put country first? I say we must.”