ANALYSIS — Senior White House officials on Friday defended President Joe Biden’s prime-time speech Thursday in Philadelphia in which he forcefully called Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement a “threat” to the country.
The president used Independence Hall as the backdrop for a major address in which he delivered the warning, after his aides had said the speech was not about the legally embattled 45th president. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundation of our republic,” Biden said Thursday.
A day later, he offered a clarification about those who still support his predecessor — but he did not back down from the alarms he sounded.
“I don’t consider any Trump supporter to be a threat to the country,” he told reporters after an economic event Friday. “I do think anyone who calls for the use of violence, fails to condemn violence when it’s used, refuses to acknowledge an election has been won, insists upon changing the way in which we rule and count votes, that is a threat to democracy.”
That came a day after Biden, speaking passionately and shaking balled fists over the familiar blue presidential lectern affixed with the seal of his office, said, “There’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.” He also noted some “mainstream Republicans” who are not backers of Trump’s “extreme ideology.”
Biden used the Friday question from a Fox News reporter, whose network has aired ample criticism of the Thursday speech, to elaborate on the latter point.
“People voted for Donald Trump and support him now, they weren’t voting for attacking the Capitol,” Biden said of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot that occurred after Trump summoned his backers to Washington and urged them to head down Pennsylvania Avenue to “fight like hell.”
Many obliged, clashing with law enforcement officers and forcing their way into the Capitol, where lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence were counting the states’ Electoral College results. That work was delayed for several hours, and members of the House select committee investigating the riot and the weeks leading up to it have accused Trump of inciting his loyalists to commit violence.
But that does not mean every Trump supporter condones political violence, Biden said Friday.
“They weren’t voting for overruling an election. They were voting for a philosophy he put forward,” the president said. “So I am not talking about anything other than … a failure to recognize and condemn violence whenever it’s used for these purposes. Failure to condemn an attempt to manipulate electoral outcomes, failure to acknowledge when elections are won or lost.”
Republicans blasted Biden’s Philadelphia speech, including some who are reportedly mulling a 2024 presidential bid and others who remain close allies of Trump.
“That was a campaign speech under the guise of a presidential address,” tweeted Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a possible GOP primary combatant.
“Instead of focusing on issues impacting Americans, Biden demonized half the country to distract from his failures,” Scott added. “We need leaders who work to make this nation stronger & safer, instead of tearing us apart.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whom a judge ordered to testify to a grand jury about his actions on behalf of Trump after the 2020 election to try to overturn Biden’s win in Georgia, also criticized Biden’s rhetoric as too political.
“With all due respect Mr. President, there’s nothing wrong with America’s soul,” tweeted Graham. “The American people are hurting because of your policies. Rampant inflation. Out of control crime. Terrorism on the rise. Broken borders. Stop lecturing & change your policies before it’s too late.”
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Friday acknowledged the Thursday address “wasn’t just a policy speech, obviously.”
But she stopped short of saying it was political in nature, even in part. She also signaled that the administration is not developing any policy package intended to shield the country’s political system and governance structure from the perceived MAGA-Trump “threat.”
Harking back to part of the 2020 campaign platform that Biden used to defeat Trump, Jean-Pierre said her boss’s strategy will be to continue calling for unity — even as Trump and other Republicans criticize him daily for governing as a progressive after selling himself as a bipartisan deal-maker and national unifier.
“The president believes we can make great progress out of the darkest moments. And he calls on all Americans, regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on, regardless of which ideology that you may follow, regardless of which political persuasion, to unite around democracy. He thought that was an important message, again at an inflection point,” Jean-Pierre said.
Biden’s speech came the same day Trump told a radio program that should he run again and win a second term, he might pardon some or all convicted Jan. 6 rioters. He used his social media platform later to contend that through the “words and meaning of the awkward and angry Biden speech tonight, he threatened America, including with the possible use of military force.”
Biden, the sitting commander in chief, did the opposite, never using the word “military” in his speech.
And he appeared to take umbrage with Graham, who this week predicted “riots” if Trump is convicted as the FBI probes his taking a horde of classified and sensitive government documents from the White House to his South Florida resort for unclear reasons.
“On top of that, there are public figures today, yesterday and the day before predicting and all but calling for mass violence and rioting in the streets,” Biden said Thursday. “This is inflammatory. It’s dangerous. It’s against the rule of law. And we, the people, must say this is not who we are.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we can’t be pro-insurrectionist and pro-American. They’re incompatible,” he added. “We can’t allow violence to be normalized in this country. It’s wrong. We each have to reject political violence with all the moral clarity and conviction this nation can muster now.”