Joe Biden on Monday accused President Donald Trump of fanning the flames of violence as a week of deadly unrest has catapulted law and order to the top of the political agenda barely two months before the US election.
The stakes for Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh, in the swing state of Pennsylvania, could not have been higher a day before Trump heads to the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, to deliver his dueling vision on the upheaval.
Emerging from months of Covid-19 travel restrictions, Biden finds himself suddenly on the defensive, mocked by Trump as weak in the face of events combining leftist anti-racism protests, riots, deadly shootings and right-wing vigilante actions in Kenosha and in Portland, Oregon.
With Trump exalting in the shift of debate from his widely panned handling of the coronavirus pandemic to his favoured theme of crime, Biden risks losing the momentum that has put him ahead in the polls for the November 3 vote.
But the 77-year-old Democrat punched back, branding Trump’s presidency “a toxic presence in our nation.”
“Fires are burning and we have a president who fans the flames rather than fighting the flames,” Biden said.
“The incumbent president is incapable of telling us the truth, incapable of facing the facts and incapable of healing.”
While Trump has spent much of the past week warning voters they “won’t be safe” in Biden’s America, the Democrat sought to turn tables on the Republican in his 22-minute speech — delivered in a mostly empty hall due to coronavirus concerns — with the question: “Do you really feel safer under Donald Trump?”
Trump “can’t stop the violence, because for years he has fomented it,” Biden charged.
Trump “may believe mouthing the words ‘law and order’ makes him strong, but his failure to call on his own supporters to stop acting as an armed militia in this country shows you how weak he is.”
Biden, who has been accused by Republicans of insufficiently denouncing violence by leftist anti-racism protesters, tried to set this to rest.
“Looting is not protesting, setting fires is not protesting,” he said.
“None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple, and those who do it should be prosecuted.”
At a White House press conference, Trump still complained that Biden “mostly seemed to blame the police and law enforcement,” not leftist radicals.
On Tuesday, Trump will promote his own perspective on what’s wrong in America’s cities by visiting Kenosha.
The city, in one of the most significant swing states of the electoral map, has been in turmoil since the shooting by a white police officer of an African-American man in front of his children during an arrest this month.
A microcosm of the racial and ideological tensions of the Trump era, Kenosha has seen Black Lives Matter protests, riots, and the arrival of armed, white vigilantes, culminating in an incident where a 17-year-old militia enthusiast, Kyle Rittenhouse, allegedly shot dead two people at the protest and badly injured another.
Democrats and police reform advocates see Kenosha as a symbol of institutional racism leading to deadly encounters between officers and black suspects.
They see Rittenhouse, a Trump supporter, as emblematic of right-wing militias that are increasingly brazen about brandishing weaponry in political settings and attempting to act as amateur law enforcers.
Trump, however, is making clear he comes with a different priority: countering what he has repeatedly described as the “anarchy” in Democratic-led cities.
He will “meet with local law enforcement and some business owners and he’ll survey the damage” from the unrest, spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told reporters.
Trump described his desire “to see the people that did such a good job for me,” referring to law enforcement units that quelled the rioting.
Trump also declined to condemn the killings that Rittenhouse, who was in the streets with a rifle, is suspected of.
Trump called this “an interesting situation” and said the teenager seen in video footage of the killings — allegedly Rittenhouse — was reacting because he was attacked.
The White House said there were no plans for Trump to meet while in Kenosha with the family of the black man shot by the police officer, Jacob Blake.
Although Biden has talked by telephone with the Blake family, Trump also ruled this out, saying the relatives wanted a family lawyer to be in on the call.
“That’s inappropriate,” he said, without explaining further.
Trump said he had instead had a “great talk” with “the pastor,” whom he called “a wonderful man.”
Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr, said Trump’s comment mystified him.
“We don’t have a family pastor,” he told CNN. “I don’t know who he talked to, I don’t care.”
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has asked Trump not to visit, out of fear of greater tensions.
Trump responded that his trip “could increase love and respect for our country.”