For the better part of the last year, President Biden has sought to ignore his predecessor as he has tried to deliver on a campaign promise to return the country to some semblance of political normalcy.
But in a passionate speech at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday marking the one-year anniversary of the bloody insurrection, Biden essentially conceded he could not reconstruct a world before Donald Trump’s tenure, nor could he deliver on his promise of protecting democracy without calling out the former president’s role in lying about the 2020 election results and inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol.
“For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election. He tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob reached the Capitol,” Biden said from Statuary Hall, a historic chamber in a Capitol building that Biden, a former senator, reveres.
Biden avoided using Trump’s name, following a practice he has tried to abide since taking office on Jan. 20. But it hardly mattered. Like a prosecutor delivering a closing argument, the president methodically detailed Trump’s conduct as the slow-motion riot accelerated. He described how Trump lit the fuse and watched it on television from the White House, “doing nothing, for hours,” to stop it.
In concluding his case, Biden hit hard at Trump’s motive:
“His bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution,” Biden said. “He can’t accept he lost.”
This was not a commemoration filled with calls for unity or a return to normalcy as much as it was a plea for Americans to accept the truth of what happened a year ago. There was no attempt to say the nation had healed and has come together with common purpose or belief.
On the contrary, Biden spent much of the address debunking Trump’s claims of a rigged election, point-by-point, asking why many of the Republicans who have supported the former president’s fraud claims have not disputed their own victories, on the same ballots.
Few thought such a speech would be necessary a year after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, inflicted injuries on more than 100 police officers, contributed to the deaths of five people and forced the evacuation of lawmakers from the complex.
Biden certainly hadn’t anticipated needing to make such an address. He pitched his candidacy on the idea that he was a seasoned hand who had worked across the aisle, one of the grown-ups in the room. The nation, he believed, could snap back from a twice-impeached president who smashed norms and challenged bedrock institutions.
“The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House,” Biden said in his first 2019 campaign visit to New Hampshire. “You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”
On the night he was declared winner of the election, Biden still believed healing would come.
“It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy,” he said.
But many elected Republicans and conservative media figures — even those who once agreed Biden had won the election or who texted Trump begging him to stop the insurrection — have since paid Trump homage at his Florida home. They have amplified his false rhetoric. The lies have taken hold on the rank and file in the party: 3 in 4 Republican voters in a recent National Public Radio poll agree with Trump that there were “real cases of fraud that changed the results.”
The closest Biden came to reaching across the aisle on Thursday was an offer to work with Republicans who accepted the election and a concession that “some courageous men and women in the Republican Party are standing against” the lies. But even then he went only so far, quickly pivoting back to his harsher argument: “Too many others are transforming that party into something else.”
Biden seemed to understand that his words were unlikely to win him Republican converts and the risk of further politicizing the event. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close Trump ally, acknowledged in a statement Thursday that he “cannot believe that a mob was able to take over the United States Capitol during such a pivotal moment — certifying a presidential election.” He then blasted Biden’s speech on Twitter, saying it was a “brazen politicization of January 6.”
The president’s willingness to attack Trump, if not in name, will come as a relief to some Democrats who believe Biden’s determination to seek bipartisanship and convey normalcy has slowed his agenda. In particular, they believe his strategy has prevented him from articulating the full case for a voting rights bill in the face of Republican-led efforts at the state level to change the rules.
They point to senators like Graham, who once prided themselves as bipartisan dealmakers, as evidence of a changed party.
Biden has resisted giving up on his view that the parties can work together and will probably point as evidence to his $1-trillion infrastructure bill that he signed in November. But Republican leaders were absent from Thursday’s commemoration and are likely to drive an even harder partisan wedge as this year’s midterm elections approach.
Those who see this moment as an emergency for American democracy may have finally gotten the speech they wanted. As he was leaving the Capitol on Thursday morning, Biden was asked whether calling out Trump would lead to more division than healing.
“The way you have to heal, you have to recognize the extent of the wound,” Biden told reporters. “You can’t pretend. This is serious stuff.”
Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.