Monday, June 17, 2024

Biden defends democracy in France, drawing implied contrast with Trump

POINTE DU HOC, France — President Biden returned to Normandy on Friday to hail the U.S. Army Rangers who scaled the cliffs of this seaside town eight decades ago in defense of freedom and democracy, part of a speech aimed at a U.S. audience that echoed the central themes of his reelection bid.

One day after meeting with World War II veterans and declaring during a D-Day commemoration that “democracy is never guaranteed,” Biden leaned more heavily into one of the domestic aims of his visit to France: to draw a sharp contrast with his predecessor and chief political rival, Donald Trump.

“My fellow Americans, I refuse to believe — I simply refuse to believe — that America’s greatness is a thing of the past,” Biden said in an implicit reference to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.

Biden began his remarks by recounting the harrowing experiences of the 225 Army Rangers who stormed the pivotal heights on D-Day.

“All they knew was time was of the essence. They had only 30 minutes — 30 minutes — to eliminate the Nazi guns, guns that hid behind these cliffs, guns that could halt the Allied offensive before it began,” Biden said.

Later in his speech, he suggested that the “ghosts” of the 225 men — all of whom have since died — were calling on today’s Americans to confront modern-day challenges of isolationism, bigotry and democratic backsliding.

“They stormed the beaches alongside their allies. Does anyone believe these Rangers want America to go it alone today?” Biden said. “They fought to vanquish a hateful ideology of the ’30s and ’40s. Does anyone doubt they would move heaven and earth to vanquish hateful ideologies of today?”

While Biden did not mention Trump by name in his speech, it was not lost on listeners that many of his warnings about the dangers of authoritarian and isolationist impulses dovetail with his campaign’s central case against the former president. Biden, who has said in the past that America’s very democracy is at stake in the coming election, has sought to use the setting of D-Day’s 80th anniversary to sound the alarm about the advance of anti-democratic forces across the globe, as well as at home.

“When we talk about democracy — American democracy — we often talk the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Biden said. “What we don’t talk about is how hard it is. … The most natural instinct is to be selfish, force our will upon others, to seize power and never give up.”

Biden’s speech Friday at Pointe du Hoc, expected to be his most significant public engagement during his five-day trip to France, delivered a tacit appeal for voters to block Trump from surging back into power at a time when public polling suggests the president has work to do to convince Americans of his case.

And the president’s message about defending human rights and freedom in Europe has been complicated by his staunch support for Israel amid a growing humanitarian catastrophe resulting from relentless Israeli onslaught in Gaza.

Biden, who has focused on the war in Ukraine rather than the Middle East during his trip to France, met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier Friday in Paris and apologized for the long delay in getting a military aid package through Congress.

Biden blamed some “very conservative” lawmakers for delaying the $61 billion aid package that ultimately passed in April, and announced an additional $225 million in assistance.

“You haven’t bowed down. You haven’t yielded at all. You’ve continued to fight in a way that’s really remarkable,” Biden told Zelensky. “We’re not going to walk away from you.”

In directly critiquing Russian President Vladimir Putin as a tyrant and suggesting that Trump has a similar worldview, Biden sought to frame the political landscape in 2024 as a stark yet simple choice between democracy and dictatorship.

Trump has provided the president substantial material to work with. In the wake of his felony conviction in New York last week, the former president has intensified his campaign’s emphasis on revenge and retribution, publicly vowing to prosecute Biden and his family members over unsubstantiated corruption allegations. In private, he has specified one-time aides such as former military chief Gen. Mark A. Milley and former attorney general William P. Barr as potential targets of investigation, people familiar with the conversations told The Washington Post.

Trump has sought to spin around concerns about his authoritarian instincts by accusing Biden of acting like a dictator or undermining democracy. He has repeatedly accused Biden of spearheading political prosecutions, though there is no evidence of White House involvement in the four criminal cases against Trump.

Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to accepting the outcome of the election and to disavow political violence. Instead, he has floated violence as a possible response to a defeat, with words such as “bedlam” and “bloodbath.”

Trump and his advisers have also indicated that he plans to staff his administration with loyalists dedicated to carry out his orders and to show less restraint toward legal and customary checks on presidential authority, such as by deploying the military against migrants or civil demonstrations, intervening directly in law enforcement and defying congressional spending mandates.

Biden does not need to specifically mention those examples to make his case against Trump while in France, and instead can rely on the historic setting to drive home the point about defending democracy, said Doug Brinkley, a presidential historian.

Biden also leaned into contrasts with Trump in subtle and stylistic ways. He spoke at Thursday’s D-Day commemoration, but spent much of the day as a spectator, meeting privately and individually with veterans, and whispering into the ears of those who received France’s highest honor. In his remarks he spoke of universal themes and global struggles, but kept his distance from specific political fissures.

The decision to give a speech at Pointe du Hoc suggests that Biden is trying to replicate the successful visit of another president — Republican Ronald Reagan.

In 1984, as he was facing reelection, Reagan delivered a moving speech at Pointe du Hoc that helped lift his sagging poll numbers on foreign policy. In his remarks from the northern shore of France, Reagan hailed the 225 Rangers who jumped from British landing craft and began scaling the cliffs with ropes and grappling hooks, braving heavy fire to reach a suspected German gun emplacement 100 feet up.

“You all knew that some things are worth dying for,” Reagan told some of the surviving Rangers on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. “One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.”

Biden echoed those remarks during his speech Thursday, 40 years later, hailing the veterans who “knew, beyond any doubt, there are things that are worth fighting and dying for,” including freedom and democracy.

“Biden has a chance to be like Reagan,” said Brinkley, whose book “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” examined Reagan’s speech and the U.S. troops who fought there. “The standard is to be Reagan-esque and do everything you can to not replicate Trump’s disastrous visit.”

During a 2018 visit to France, Trump skipped a planned stop at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris, and reportedly described fallen service members as “losers” and “suckers,” remarks that were later confirmed by his chief of staff at the time, John F. Kelly. The Trump campaign has denied those comments, and others on the trip said bad weather was responsible for Trump’s decision not to visit the cemetery.

The Trump campaign, which shared selectively edited video clips of Biden’s Normandy visit aimed at making him look infirm and addled, welcomed the opportunity to contrast the two candidates on the world stage.

“President Trump secured historic peace around the world and deterred our enemies through strong leadership; and Joe Biden’s weakness and failure has invited aggression and war in both Ukraine and the Middle East,” Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, said in a statement.

The Biden campaign released a new ad Thursday featuring veterans who slammed Trump as unserious and unfit for the role of commander in chief.

For his part, Trump acknowledged the D-Day anniversary by sharing a 45-second recording of himself video-calling four veterans from his plane flying to a campaign stop in Arizona. In the clip, Trump promised to make them his first guests at the White House in January.

As he wrapped up his speech Friday, Biden suggested that rather than simply honor the memories of the fallen troops of D-Day, Americans need to listen to “the echoes of their voices” and take action.

“They’re summoning us now. They ask us, ‘What will we do?’ ” he said. “They’re not asking us to scale these cliffs, but they’re asking us to stay true to what America stands for. … They’re not asking us to do their job. They’re asking us to do our job, protect freedom in our time, to defend democracy, to stand up to aggression abroad and at home, to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”

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