In forceful condemnation of Trump, Biden warns that MAGA backers pose grave threat to democracy
The speech, which was weeks in the planning, previews how Biden will navigate a tricky set of parameters that limit how frankly he can talk about Trump.
TEMPE, Ariz. — President Joe Biden on Thursday called his once-and-perhaps-future opponent Donald Trump a direct threat to American democracy in the most forceful condemnation of the former president and the MAGA movement he has delivered since he took office.
Biden said at a speech in Arizona that Trump holds the dangerous view that presidents possess fearsome, unchecked powers, a position at odds with the constitutional norms meant to prevent unilateral rule. Though he seldom mentions Trump by name, Biden quoted something his predecessor said in 2019 when he was speaking to a conservative student group.
"Then I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president," Trump said at the time. "But I don't even talk about that." Article II spells out the powers and duties of the presidency.
Biden, speaking at an event honoring the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, 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."
The speech was weeks in the planning, and Biden worked on it aboard Air Force One as he flew to Arizona, a senior White House official said. His remarks preview how he will navigate a tricky set of parameters that limit how frankly he can talk about Trump.
Trump, a heavy favorite to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, faces federal and state indictments accusing him of using various levers of power to try to overturn his loss in the 2020 election. In every case, he has denied any wrongdoing.
Normally, that sort of baggage would be a ripe target for a political opponent. But Biden is also a sitting president whose Justice Department is prosecuting Trump. Any mention of Trump’s legal woes could be seen as politically motivated interference. So Biden has stayed silent about Trump's felony charges — and he remained so in Thursday's speech.
Instead, he focused on Trump's attacks on institutions that are crucial to a healthy representative democracy. He discussed plans developed by people in Trump's orbit to expand presidential authority in ways that would replace career civil servants with people who owe their loyalty chiefly to the president.
"What is it they intend to do," Biden said, "once they erode the constitutional order of checks and balances and separation of powers? Limit the independence of federal agencies? Put them under the thumb of a president?"
Biden denounced Trump's attacks on the free press and also Gen. Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley said he was taking precautions to protect himself and his family after Trump suggested without evidence on his social media site that Milley had made improper contact with China about Trump's thinking.
"This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!" Trump wrote.
Biden said: "The silence is deafening. Hardly any Republican called out such heinous statements."
In response to Biden's speech, a spokesman for Trump's campaign, Steven Cheung, said, "The radical left Democrats, now led by Crooked Joe Biden, are the greatest threat to democracy the United States of America has ever faced."
Biden’s speech is the fourth in a series centered on fortifying democratic values against attacks from what he describes as Republican extremists bent on eviscerating self-government. He singled out the "Make America Great Again" movement that Trump leads.
"This MAGA threat is a threat to the brick and mortar of our democratic institutions," Biden said. "It's also a threat to the character of our nation that gives our Constitution life, that binds us together as Americans, a common cause. None of this is surprising, though. They've tried to govern that way before. Thank God they failed. But they haven't given up."
Biden also used the speech to celebrate McCain, whom Trump once ridiculed for having been taken prisoner during the Vietnam War. Biden is setting aside federal funding for a library honoring McCain that will also offer education, work and health programs to needy communities in Arizona, a White House official said.