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Biden, in Valley Forge speech, to hit Trump hard as threat to democracy

President Biden delivers remarks March 29 during a Summit for Democracy in the White House complex.    (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
By Matt Viser Washington Post

President Biden is scheduled to arrive outside Philadelphia on Friday afternoon to deliver his first speech of this election year, attempting to cast the 2024 presidential campaign as a battle for the future of American democracy and portray former president Donald Trump as its chief antagonist.

He plans to speak from a community college in Blue Bell, Pa., about 10 miles from Valley Forge National Historical Park, where George Washington mobilized troops during the Revolutionary War to fight for democracy some 250 years ago. The president’s remarks come on the eve of the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, when a Trump-inspired mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and attempted to prevent Biden from taking office.

Top Biden advisers say the speech is intended as “the opening salvo for this campaign,” depicting events that occurred three centuries ago as well as three years ago, and that Biden will blast Trump for rejecting the will of the American electorate in 2020. “In describing January 6th, the president is going to be very straightforward on what happened, the truth of what happened and the role that Trump played in that,” said a senior Biden adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview the speech.

Biden aides say he will also decry the threat of political violence while suggesting that Trump accepts it. “One of the fundamental questions of the 2024 election is going to be: Can a candidate for president, without equivocation, denounce political violence in America?” the adviser said. “President Biden can answer that clearly, and he does. There’s never, ever any place for political violence in America.”

Biden has long cited presidents including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt as inspiration, and on Friday he will invoke Washington in several ways, emphasizing his willingness to peacefully hand power to his successor. “It’s always been foundational in American democracy that you don’t use any means possible to hang onto power,” the adviser said. “What leaders do is they serve, they do their duty, and they willingly move on. Washington is a real example of that.”

Still, the speech will in some ways be a departure for Biden. The president often concludes public remarks by declaring that he has never been more optimistic about the future of America, but on Friday he is expected to delve into some of the darkest chapters of American history and issue a dire warning about the direction the country could take under a second Trump presidency.

Trump, in contrast, has increasingly cast the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol as a heroic action to upend an unfair election, a viewpoint that is not based in reality. He has also sought, without foundation, to blame Biden for the numerous criminal charges Trump now faces, asserting that Biden is the true threat to democracy.

Biden’s speech Friday is notable not just for its location and timing, but also for being the first major campaign event in a reelection effort that he formally announced nearly nine months ago.

Biden has held numerous fundraisers, hired campaign staffers and opened a reelection headquarters in Wilmington, Del. He attended a union campaign rally shortly after announcing his bid, and he has held plenty of events as a part of his White House duties. But the Biden-Harris campaign has not formally staged a major public campaign event until now, a strategy that aides say reflects a deliberate plan to wait until voters begin tuning in to the 2024 race before expending resources.

While much of the political attention early this year will be on the Republican presidential field, and whether any candidate can gain enough traction to dislodge Trump’s grip on the party, the coming weeks may also provide clues for what kind of campaign the incumbent intends to run.

In addition the speech on Friday afternoon, Biden plans to deliver remarks on Monday at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine people were fatally shot by a white supremacist in 2015. Like the Valley Forge address, Biden’s remarks at Mother Emanuel are designed to fit into his message that the nation faces a “battle for the soul of America.”

The two events could provide insight into whether the Biden campaign can build boisterous crowds for a candidate with notably low approval ratings; the approach his aides will take to combat concerns about Biden’s age; and what messages they hope will resonate with the many voters who are unenthusiastic about a Biden-Trump rematch.

Biden had initially planned to give the Valley Forge remarks on Saturday - the actual anniversary of the Capitol assault - but his campaign moved the speech a day earlier because of inclement weather forecast for the Philadelphia area.

Trump is holding two campaign stops in Iowa on Friday and two more Saturday as he takes a swing through the state ahead of the GOP’s first nominating contest Jan. 15. His specific plans for taking public note of the Jan. 6 anniversary, if any, are not clear.

In recent months, the former president has steadily escalated his defense of the Capitol riot and the people who participated. He has repeatedly suggested he would pardon the rioters if he returns to the White House. Last year he made a recording with some of the most violent accused offenders held in a Washington jail, later playing the recording to open a Texas rally.

Trump embraced a convicted rioter who met him after a New Hampshire campaign speech and routinely describes riot defendants as “political prisoners” or “hostages.” His legal team has demanded documents related to debunked Jan. 6 conspiracy theories, indicating that he plans to make such claims part of his defense against special counsel Jack Smith’s charges that he sought to overturn the 2020 election.

At the same time, Trump has tried to turn the democracy message back on Biden in a technique that experts in political rhetoric and authoritarianism said can be used to confuse or desensitize voters. In recent speeches and social media posts, Trump has argued that it is Biden who is attacking democracy because the Justice Department is prosecuting him. Responding to the Colorado court decision disqualifying him under the 14th Amendment last month, Trump went so far as to call Biden an “insurrectionist.”

In a statement ahead of Biden’s speech, the Trump campaign called Biden “the true destroyer of democracy” and claimed the remarks were an attempt “to justify his push to imprison his leading political rival and deprive Americans of their right to choose their next president.”

By his own account, Biden’s 2020 campaign was launched in response to the scene in 2017 of white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, and Trump’s reluctance to condemn them. But for much of his presidency Biden has been consumed by other issues, from the Ukraine war to climate legislation.

In recent weeks - as a likely rematch with Trump loomed larger - the Biden campaign has taken a more forceful approach to the former president, including by highlighting Trump’s rhetoric calling his adversaries “vermin,” language that scholars say is reminiscent of Adolf Hitler.

Biden on Wednesday met at the White House with a group of scholars and historians to talk about ongoing threats to democracy and democratic institutions. His campaign on Saturday is launching a week-long ad campaign with $500,000 worth of televised ads that will run on national networks and local news programs in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The campaign features a 60-second spot called “Cause,” which starts with solemn music over images of average Americans going to vote. “I believe in free and fair elections and the right to vote fairly and have your vote counted,” Biden says in the ad.

Then images of the Jan. 6 assault appear as the president continues, “There’s something dangerous happening in America. There’s an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy.” As the music turns more upbeat, he adds, “All of us are being asked right now: What will we do to maintain our democracy? History is watching.”

The president’s recent rhetoric showcase the lengths Biden’s campaign is going to center the campaign around an argument that American democracy might not survive another Trump presidency.

This comes after the campaign has found limited success with other messages. Biden’s efforts to tout the unusually robust economy, for example, have not always resonated with voters, and he often struggles to talk passionately about abortion rights, an issue that animates many Democratic voters.

Vice President Harris is also being deployed in a more visible way by the Biden team. She heads to Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Saturday, and later this month she will launch a “reproductive freedoms tour” in Wisconsin to mark the anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

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Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.