Democratic presidential candidates, in a break from competing against each other, closed ranks Wednesday to denounce President Trump’s inflammatory leadership and harsh rhetoric in the wake of back-to-back mass shootings, even as the president met with families and first responders in the two cities mourning the 31 people killed last weekend.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, opening a four-day campaign swing through Iowa, discarded his standard stump speech and launched a scorching attack on what he called Trump’s exploitation of racism for political purposes, appearing visibly angry at times.
“In both clear language and in code, this president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation,” Biden said in a 25-minute speech focused almost entirely on the president. “Trump offers no moral leadership, no interest in unifying the nation, no evidence the presidency has awakened his conscience in the least.”
“Our president has more in common with George Wallace than George Washington,” Biden added.
It sounded more like a general election campaign pitch than one designed to give the audience of Iowa Democrats — many still uncommitted to Biden or any other candidate — a reason to pick him over others competing for the party’s nomination.
One of Biden’s 2020 rivals, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, spoke at a site laden with emotional significance, especially for African Americans: the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where a white supremacist gunman killed nine black worshipers in 2015.
Booker noted that the accused gunman in El Paso had warned, in a screed posted online shortly before the shooting, of an “invasion” from Mexico, echoing Trump’s repeated alarms last fall of a looming “invasion” of migrants approaching the southern border.
Booker demanded that lawmakers not only ban the assault-style weapons used in the massacres but step up scrutiny of white supremacist activity, which he blamed for making the country less safe for immigrants, African Americans and other minority groups.
But Booker said criticizing Trump is not an adequate response to the ills tearing at society, and that Americans need to confront the nation’s history of bigotry.
“The character and the culture of who we are hangs in the balance,” he said. “We can’t let these conversations devolve into the impotent simplicity of who is or isn’t a racist. The real question isn’t who is or isn’t a racist, but who is or isn’t doing something about it.”
Beto O’Rourke, who suspended his 2020 campaign activities to return to his home town of El Paso after a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart, has been particularly blunt in calling Trump a racist and a white supremacist.
Trump fired back on Twitter early Wednesday, saying the former Texas congressman should be “embarrassed” by his weak showing so far in 2020 polls, and “should respect the victims & law enforcement — & be quiet.”
O’Rourke, who planned to attended a protest rally in El Paso during Trump’s visit, quickly tweeted back, “22 people in my hometown are dead after an act of terror inspired by your racism. El Paso will not be quiet and neither will I.”
Other Democratic candidates took swipes at the president’s daylong trip to El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, saying his efforts to comfort a reeling nation were overshadowed by his refusal to acknowledge any role in fomenting white nationalism and racial divisions.
“We have a president who is an overt racist and xenophobe,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “He should stay away from El Paso. What he should do right now is end his anti-immigrant rhetoric.”
Before leaving Washington early Wednesday, Trump rejected the suggestion that he has encouraged violence.
“I don’t think my rhetoric does at all,” he told reporters at the White House. “I think my rhetoric brings people together. Our country is doing really well.”
He later took to Twitter to denigrate Biden’s speech, having apparently watched it between stops in Ohio and Texas. “Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech,” he wrote. “Sooo Boring.”
The national horror over the shootings has — at least for now — shifted the tone and focus of the Democrats’ presidential primary, which had been dominated by candidates bickering during and after the latest round of debates.
In arguably the most fiery speech of his campaign so far, Biden leveled a blistering critique of Trump’s speech at the White House on Monday that focused on the shootings.
“His low-energy, vacant-eyed mouthing of the words written for him condemning white supremacists this week I don’t believe fooled anyone, at home or abroad,” Biden said.
Biden tied his critique of Trump to one of the pillars of his presidential campaign when he said, “We have a president who has aligned himself with the darkest forces in this nation. And that makes winning the battle for the soul of this nation that much harder.”
Biden has made the “battle for the soul of the nation” a central theme of his campaign, which was launched with an immediate focus on Trump and general election themes.
His supporters see him on stronger ground when he is setting himself in opposition to Trump than when he is at odds with his Democratic primary opponents. His record was attacked and he was inconsistent in his ability to respond forcefully during the first two debates of the campaign.
Hook reported from Burlington and Beason from Los Angeles. Staff writer Molly O’Toole contributed from Washington.