“I’m not thinking about the former president,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect before exiting the White House stage.
Without naming him, Biden referenced the “former president” 16 times in a curt speech marking the anniversary of the January 6 riots on the US Capitol. Standing in the same space where would-be insurgents had marched to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, Biden denounced his predecessor in a way he had never done before; in fact, in a way that few US presidents have deemed necessary when speaking of their forerunners.
“A former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 elections,” Biden said, relying on his words and raising his voice in outrage.
In meetings where Biden discussed the speech with his team over the past month and a half, advisers came away with the distinct impression that it was a deeply personal moment for a president whose tenure has been overshadowed by the lies about electoral fraud that Trump has sold. the 2020 presidential election and the enduring control it continues to exert over the Republican Party.
Biden attended the sessions, which began in late November, with differing views on the tone he hoped to adopt during the speech, according to officials familiar with the language of the speech. Biden, according to one, felt he “absolutely had to speak up on this day” and make it clear that what happened on January 6 “was not normal.”
The speech dates back to themes from Biden’s campaign, when he repeatedly vowed to “restore the soul of the nation.” It was, he said time and again, the main reason for returning to the political arena on a mission to defeat Trump.
The president’s direct approach to Trump on Thursday marked a sharp reversal of his stance for most of the past year, as he has intentionally tried to prevent his predecessor from taking over the first year of his administration.
He has at times been criticized for failing to explain with enough passion the corrosion of the national democracy that he feels is underway, even though it is an issue that, according to attendees, drives Biden and animates much of his presidency. The speech was calibrated to meet the historic moment, the advisers said, with electoral lies still running rampant through a Republican Party that remains a slave to Trump.
The president has been deeply concerned by recent polls, which have found that a large majority of Republicans and a sizable proportion of independents have bought into Trump’s election falsehoods. In some polls, as many as 7 in 10 Republicans say fraud helped Biden win, a claim that has been repeatedly debunked.
Mike Donilon, a longtime Biden advisor who has crafted most of his marquee speeches, played a key role in writing Thursday’s speech alongside the president’s chief speechwriter, Vinay Reddy, who also served Biden when he was vice president.
They were assisted by presidential historian Jon Meacham, who worked behind the scenes with Biden and his team to put the speech in historical perspective in line with other traumatic national events, according to three officials familiar with the matter.
If naming Trump in the speech was open to discussion, it was being drafted, according to officials. Instead, attendees focused on how sustained, and scathing, the attack on Trump should be.
“Going after the former president is inherently political,” said one official.
Ultimately, Biden did not use Trump’s name, although it had little consequence. His references to the man who once held his position were clear and deeply forceful.
He attacked Trump as the “defeated former president,” one who “failed to present his case to the voters” and “lost” an election by millions of votes. The language seemed designed to agitate Trump, who has a particular aversion to losing and weakness, although advisers said that was not his specific intention.
Biden himself told reporters after the speech that he had avoided naming Trump because he “did not want to turn it into a contemporary political battle.” Still, from his Palm Beach property, Trump responded in a statement accusing Biden of “lies and polarizations.”
“Looks like he saw the speech,” Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki said later that day. “I guess that’s good news. Maybe he learned something about what it looks like to meet the moment in the country.”
The speech at Statuary Hall, a familiar spot on Biden’s beloved Capitol, came at a time when the president needed something of a political lifeline to enter the second year of his tenure weakened by the persistent Covid-19 pandemic and its lasting social consequences. White House aides are hopeful the speech will help unify Democrats after a painful year of divisions within the party ranks.
Biden rehearsed directing only once, during a review Wednesday. The aides had cleared his schedule in preparation for Thursday’s speech, though he also held closed-door meetings on other topics.
After making his comments, Biden felt good when he got back into the presidential limousine. But his first questions, his assistants said, were: What did the others think? And how, he asked his assistants, did they think people would digest it?
Even before returning to the White House, West Wing aides felt a sense of relief once Biden finished speaking, given the pre-speech preparation and the need to ensure he delivered a timely speech.
As the day progressed, West Wing viewed the speech as a huge success, aides said, and believes it is ready to serve as a prelude to a speech Tuesday in Atlanta, when it will deliver a full push for voting rights legislation. . and electoral reform. Supporters are hopeful that the president will call for a change from the Senate filibuster, and the White House has signaled that it is prepared to do so.
Still, officials say the emphasis in Atlanta will not be on Trump. Biden’s advisers plan to be selective in directly targeting the former president in the future because they do not see him as something the American people need or want at this time, according to a senior administration official.
“You have to face it,” Biden said. “That is what great nations do: they face the truth, they face it and they move on.”