By ZEKE MILLER and JOSH BOAK
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — President Joe Biden warned Thursday night that “equality and democracy are under assault” in the U.S. as he sounded an alarm about his predecessor, Donald Trump, and “MAGA Republican” adherents, labeling them an extremist threat to the nation and its future.
Aiming to reframe the November elections as part of a battle for the nation’s soul — “the work of my presidency” — Biden used his prime-time speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to argue that Trump and the “Make America Great Again” allies who now lead the Republican Party are a menace to the nation’s system of government, its standing abroad and its citizens’ way of life.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic,” Biden declared. He said they “are determined to take this country backward,’ they “promote authoritarian leaders and they fan the flames of political violence.”
The explicit effort by Biden to marginalize Trump and his adherents marks a sharp turn for the president, who preached his desire to bring about national unity in his Inaugural address. White House officials said it reflects his mounting concern about Trump allies’ ideological proposals and relentless denial of the nation’s 2020 election results.
“MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards,” Biden said. “Backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.”
“Now, America must choose to move forward or to move backwards,” he said, appealing for citizens to “vote, vote, vote” to protect their democracy. “For a long time, we’ve reassured ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed. But it is not.”
Biden, who largely avoided even referring to “the former guy” by name during his first year in office, has grown increasingly vocal in calling out Trump personally. Now, emboldened by his party’s recent legislative wins and wary of Trump’s return to the headlines, Biden is sharpening his attacks, last week likening the “MAGA philosophy” to “semi-fascism.”
Trump plans a rally this weekend in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden’s birthplace.
In Philadelphia, Biden harked back to the 2017 white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, which he said brought him out of political retirement to challenge Trump. Biden argued that the country faces a similar crossroads in the coming months, and he cast defending the nation’s values as “the work of my presidency — a mission I believe in with my whole soul.”
Raising his voice over pro-Trump hecklers outside the building where the nation’s founding was debated, Biden said he wasn’t condemning the 74 million people who voted for Trump in 2020.
“Not every Republican, not even a majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans,” Biden said. “But there’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.”
Biden’s appearance was promoted as an official, taxpayer-funded event, a mark of how the president views defeating the Trump agenda as much as a policy aim as a political one. Red and blue lights illuminated the brick of Independence Hall, as the Marine Band played “Hail to the Chief” and a pair of Marine sentries stood at parade rest in the backdrop. Still, the major broadcast television networks did not carry the address live.
“There are far more Americans, from every background and belief, who reject the extreme MAGA ideology, than those that accept it,” Biden said. He urged Americans to “come together, unite behind the single purpose of defending our democracy regardless of your ideology.”
Biden also condemned political violence in all of its forms, saying, “We can’t allow violence to be normalized.”
Delivering a preemptive rebuttal from Scranton Thursday evening, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy accused Biden of trying to divide Americans, and blasted the Democrats’ record in Washington, pointing to rising inflation, crime and government spending.
“In the past two years, Joe Biden has launched an assault on the soul of America, on its people, on its laws, on its most sacred values,” he said. “He has launched an assault on our democracy. His policies have severely wounded America’s soul, diminished America’s spirit and betrayed America’s trust.”
Asked about McCarthy’s criticism, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said earlier Thursday that “we understand we hit a nerve” with the GOP leader, and quoted the Republican’s prior statements saying Trump bore responsibility for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Larry Diamond, an expert on democracy and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said calling Trump out for attacks on democracy “can be manipulated or framed as being partisan. And if you don’t call it out, you are shrinking from an important challenge in the defense of democracy.”
Even this week, Trump was posting on his beleaguered social media platform about overturning the 2020 election results and holding a new presidential election, which would violate the Constitution.
The White House has tried to keep Biden removed from the legal and political maelstrom surrounding the Department of Justice’s discovery of classified documents in Trump’s Florida home. Still, Biden has pointed to some Republicans’ quick condemnation of federal law enforcement, to argue “you can’t be pro-insurrectionist and pro-American.”
Biden’s trip to Philadelphia was just one of his three to the state within a week, a sign of Pennsylvania’s importance in the midterms, with competitive Senate and governor’s races. However, neither Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democrats’ Senate nominee, nor Attorney General Josh Shapiro, their pick for governor, attended Thursday night.
The White House intended the speech to unite familiar themes: holding out bipartisan legislative wins on guns and infrastructure as evidence that democracies “can deliver,” pushing back on GOP policies on guns and abortion that Biden says are out of step with most people’s views, and rejecting efforts to undermine confidence in the nation’s elections or diminish its standing abroad.
The challenges have only increased since the tumult surrounding the 2020 election and the Capitol attack.
Lies surrounding that presidential race have triggered harassment and death threats against state and local election officials and new restrictions on mail voting in Republican-dominated states. County election officials have faced pressure to ban the use of voting equipment, efforts generated by conspiracy theories that voting machines were somehow manipulated to steal the election.
Candidates who dispute Trump’s loss have been inspired to run for state and local election posts, promising to restore integrity to a system that has been undermined by false claims.
There is no evidence of any widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines. Judges, including ones appointed by Trump, dismissed dozens of lawsuits filed after the election, and Trump’s own attorney general called the claims bogus. Yet Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research polling has shown about two-thirds of Republicans say they do not think Biden was legitimately elected president.
This year, election officials face not only the continuing threat of foreign interference but also ransomware, politically motivated hackers and insider threats. Over the past year, security breaches have been reported at a small number of local election offices in which authorities are investigating whether office staff improperly accessed or provided improper access to sensitive voting technology.
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller reported from Washington. Chris Megerian in Washington and Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed.
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