Wilmington, Delaware: Joe Biden strained to contain his disgust with President Donald Trump on Friday over a report that Trump had made extraordinarily disrespectful remarks about fallen soldiers.
Then he turned to the coronavirus pandemic and the financial pain it had inflicted on millions of Americans. Trump, he said, “just doesn’t care.”
And a day earlier, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Biden presented himself as a unifying force determined to confront racial injustice - a very different message from the one Trump sent during his visit to the city two days earlier.
After Democrats spent their convention last month casting him as the candidate of empathy, Biden found himself with the opportunity to demonstrate that in real time this week.
Over two days, in a key battleground state and in his own backyard, Biden drew unmistakably sharp contrasts with Trump - not just about policy ideas or management competence, but also about showing respect and understanding Americans’ struggles.
On Friday, in a fiery speech and a subsequent news conference, Biden expressed outrage over a report by The Atlantic that Trump had referred to US soldiers killed in combat during World War I as “losers” and “suckers” and had repeatedly shown disdain for military service at other points in his presidency. Trump and a number of his aides have denied the reporting, which cited multiple sources but did not name them.
“If what is written in The Atlantic is true, it’s disgusting,” Biden said in remarks he delivered in a Wilmington gymnasium a short drive from his home. “And it affirms what most of us believe to be true: that Donald Trump is not fit to do the job of president, to be the commander in chief.”
Ticking through a list of other well-documented instances in which Trump has dismissed the sacrifices of military veterans, including those of Sen. John McCain, Biden continued, “President Trump has demonstrated he has no sense of service, no loyalty to any cause other than himself.”
Biden spoke in strikingly personal terms about the military service of his son Beau Biden, who served in the Iraq War and died in 2015 of brain cancer.
With barely concealed fury, he said that Beau Biden “wasn’t a ‘sucker,’” adding, “The servicemen and women he served with, particularly those who did not come home, were not ‘losers.’”
He called the report “absolutely damnable” and he was unsparing in denouncing Trump’s behaviour. “I’ve just never been as disappointed in my whole career with a leader that I’ve worked with, president or otherwise,” he said.
“It is sick,” Biden added. “It is deplorable. It is so un-American. It is so unpatriotic.”
Trump on Friday repeated his denial of the report. “It was a totally fake story, and that was confirmed by many people who were actually there,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. “I’ve done more for the military than almost anybody else.”
Military veterans often lean Republican, and they supported Trump over Hillary Clinton by a large margin in the 2016 election, according to exit polls. But in 2018 a number of the most prominent Democratic House candidates were veterans, and Biden, who has been endorsed by a long list of Republican national security experts, hopes to appeal to more voters with ties to the military.
Biden’s condemnation of Trump came in a speech that was otherwise focused on the economy, an area that has been a source of political strength for the president, though the ravages of the pandemic have threatened his standing on the issue. In a national Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, likely voters were evenly split on whether Trump or Biden would do a better job handling the economy.
But Biden’s reaction to the president’s reported comments set the tone for his event, at which he also fielded questions from the news media. Asked about supporters of QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory, Biden suggested they should seek treatment.
“I’ve been a big supporter of mental health,” he said. “I’d recommend the people who believe it maybe should take advantage while it still exists in the Affordable Care Act. It’s bizarre. Totally bizarre.”
Before Biden’s speech, the Labour Department provided a snapshot of the virus’s continuing economic toll. Job growth slowed in August, the department said, as the economy added 1.4 million jobs, fewer than in the previous three months. Payrolls remain more than 11 million jobs below their level before the pandemic. The unemployment rate declined to 8.4 per cent, down from 14.7 per cent in April.
“You can’t have an economic comeback when almost 1,000 Americans die each day from COVID,” Biden said in his speech, faulting the president over his handling of the virus and noting the economic damage it had inflicted on the American public.
“The painful truth is, we just have a president who just doesn’t see it,” Biden said. “He doesn’t feel it. He doesn’t understand. He just doesn’t care. He thinks if the stock market is up, then everything’s fine. If his wealthy friends and donors are doing well, then everything’s doing well.”
In response to the jobs report, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, Tim Murtaugh, said in a statement that Biden “hopes for economic ruin to buoy his political fortunes.”
“While the work is not finished,” he said, “President Trump’s policies positioned us to fight through the coronavirus crisis and reopen faster than doomsayers like Biden predicted.”