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Biden visits U.S. cemetery in France in bid to combat ‘Trump amnesia’

President Joe Biden delivers a speech during the U.S. ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the World War II “D-Day” Allied landings in Normandy, at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, which overlooks Omaha Beach in northwestern France, on Thursday.  (Daniel Cole/Pool/AFP)
By Toluse Olorunnipa, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Julie Zauzmer Weil Washington Post

PARIS – President Joe Biden visited an American cemetery in France on Sunday, a somber setting that allowed him to pay his respects to fallen soldiers while reminding voters of one of the most controversial moments of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Biden’s stop at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery – a site Trump skipped during a 2018 trip after reportedly calling those buried there “suckers” and “losers” – capped a five-day trip to France in which the president did not say his predecessor’s name in public but nonetheless sought to make clear the sharp differences that exist between the two men and their presidencies.

As he left the cemetery, Biden said he felt “pride” and “reverence” for what the soldiers there accomplished, drawing a contrast with Trump’s reported disparagement of fallen troops and taking aim at the isolationist impulses Trump has embraced.

“The best way to avoid these kinds of battles in the future is to stay strong with our allies,” Biden said. “I think there’s a new rise and a sense of some within the country wanting to let that slip, the idea that we become semi-isolationist now, which some are talking about. … It’s not who we are.”

The visit was part of a mounting effort by Biden and his campaign to resurface the worst memories of Trump’s turbulent four years in office – a push that has run squarely into a phenomenon pollsters have branded “Trump amnesia.” With polls showing Americans giving Trump higher marks on several issues than they did while he was president – including on foreign policy – the 2024 contest could be determined by voters’ willingness to forget, according to political strategists and historians.

Biden has taken a personal interest in the idea that the passage of time has softened Americans’ memories of Trump’s presidency and increasingly has sought to play the role of reminder in chief.

With speeches, trips to places Trump once trod and campaign ads that often feature more of Trump’s words than his own, the president has tried to help voters recall why they opted to oust his predecessor.

Whether actions like Sunday’s cemetery visit – and the accompanying political ads his campaign has rolled out to make a more direct case – are effective in combating a sense of nostalgia for Trump could prove pivotal to Biden’s reelection effort.

“Trump is trying to make the country forget just how dark and unsettling things were when he was president,” Biden said during a May 30 campaign rally in Philadelphia, using a line he has uttered repeatedly in recent months. “But we’ll never forget.”

In recent speeches, Biden has frequently brought up Trump’s visit to France, often raising his voice to blast the former president for allegedly disparaging fallen service members. Trump has vehemently denied making the comments, though the “suckers-and-losers” controversy has persisted for almost four years.

In November 2018, Trump skipped a planned stop at the military cemetery outside Paris, where he and other world leaders were set to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

According to a 2020 report in the Atlantic, Trump refused to visit the cemetery in part because he said the 2,000 soldiers buried there were “losers,” remarks that were later confirmed by his chief of staff at the time, John F. Kelly. Trump’s allies have pointed to other officials who deny he made such a remark, and his aides at the time said bad weather was responsible for the decision to nix the cemetery visit from his schedule.

While Biden traveled to France primarily to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day – the invasion of Nazi-occupied France by Allied forces on June 6, 1944 – and hold a state visit with what he called America’s “first friend,” a trip to the cemetery that Trump snubbed offered the president a clear opportunity to resurface memories of his predecessor’s failings, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian.

Before Biden’s itinerary was announced, Brinkley said: “I would hope that Biden has the fortitude to go visit that cemetery and to pay respects where Trump wouldn’t go because there was a drizzle. He doesn’t need to say anything, but commentators will point out the contrast.”

While Biden did not mention Trump’s name during his public events over five days in France – which could have come across as uncouth during a trip focused on World War II veterans – much of the substance of his visit offered an implicit rebuke of his predecessor’s worldview and a warning about the threat it represents to the global order.

In speeches, Biden denounced isolationism, campaigned against “hateful ideology,” slammed those who try to hold on to power, and warned that democracy is under dire threat, messages that dovetail with his campaign’s main lines of attack against Trump.

He effusively praised the global alliances Trump has disparaged, saying their value to U.S. security is “a lesson that I pray we Americans never forget.”

But he was reluctant to attack Trump more directly while visiting a cemetery where Americans were buried.

“The idea we can come to Normandy Beach, celebrate, show reverence for those we lost … and not come here,” Biden told reporters Sunday, not completing the thought but adding, “you know the idea.”

Asked directly about what his message to voters was about Trump’s decision to skip the cemetery, Biden demurred: “Any other questions?” he said.

The moment itself was a contrast to Trump’s 2019 visit to Normandy, when he attacked special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as “a fool” and the House speaker at the time, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as “a disaster” in a Fox News interview while sitting in front of rows of graves of American troops killed on D-Day.

Aides and allies said that even without naming the former president, Biden was offering voters a sharp contrast as he shared emotional moments with World War II veterans in Normandy, echoed President Ronald Reagan’s defense of democracy at Pointe du Hoc and showed solidarity with French President Emmanuel Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – two men Trump clashed with while in office.

As Biden was making an implicit case for his reelection, his campaign pushed to make a more direct appeal against Trump by releasing two digital ads that slammed the former president over his treatment of U.S. service members. One of the ads, released Saturday, featured quotes from Trump disparaging veterans against the backdrop of military cemeteries and flag-draped coffins.

Trump’s campaign said Biden’s trip to France presented a contrast on foreign policy that it welcomed, pointing out that wars in Ukraine and Israel happened under Biden’s watch.

“No one poses a greater threat to American democracy than Joe Biden,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said in a statement, adding that Biden “is taking our country to the gutter.”

Molly Murphy, a pollster for the Biden campaign, said the president and his team are well aware of the “Trump amnesia” phenomenon and are working diligently to combat it. She said voters who were exhausted by constant drama during Trump’s term have actively tried to forget such memories, putting the onus on Biden’s campaign to conjure up recollections of incidents like the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by the former president’s supporters.

“We have to do it everywhere, because when the voters who we need to reach are telling us, ‘I’m actively trying to forget about that time; I’m actively not embracing it,’ it just means that you have to be in all places doing it,” she said.

Biden’s campaign has regularly highlighted anniversaries of Trump’s missteps, noting that many of his struggles handling the coronavirus pandemic happened four years ago.

Biden himself has taken the effort on the road, sometimes using his physical presence to remind voters about Trump’s presidency. Last month, he traveled to Racine, Wis., to highlight a new Microsoft data center, slamming Trump for his failed promise to bring a Foxconn plant to the same site.

His stop Sunday at the cemetery – where he laid a wreath and made the sign of the cross – was less explicit, but aides hope it will remind voters why Trump left office with such low approval ratings.

Whether the broader gambit will succeed remains to be seen, but Biden’s struggling poll numbers – and surveys consistently showing Americans with a more favorable view of Trump’s presidency on key issues – indicate it could be an uphill battle.

“There’s a general sense that we’re moving in the wrong direction. And none of this speaks to that question that Biden needs to fundamentally overcome,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “So going to France is not going to change one voter’s mind. He’s sort of saying, ‘Hey, remember when Trump went?’ Okay, what’s that supposed to do?”

Trump, too, is trying to remind voters of moments his opponent wishes they would forget.

Trump has taken to social media to resurface some of Biden’s blunders, frequently making allusions to the president’s advanced age and presumed lack of fitness. Biden is 81, and Trump is 77.

Last week, Trump posted a video on Instagram of Biden falling down at the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation in 2023, noting that the incident had happened exactly one year earlier.

On Thursday, he posted a reel of some of Biden’s most embarrassing moments, including clips of him falling off his bike, stumbling up the stairs of Air Force One and struggling to find his words.

At campaign rallies, Trump has frequently brought up the chaotic 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan and runaway inflation from earlier in Biden’s presidency, leaning into a “Make America Great Again” message to cultivate a sense of nostalgia for his four years in office.

During a town hall in Phoenix on Thursday, the former president talked about how “people that had a comfortable life under Trump” are now struggling under the “record-setting inflation” of Biden’s term.

While efforts to shape voters’ memories have long been a staple of presidential races – with “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” becoming a popular election-year refrain – the fact that two presidents are facing off this year only heightens the importance of winning the battle over what Americans remember, said Tevi Troy, a presidential historian.

“History shows that memory campaigns can work, but only if voters think that the memory being evoked is worse than what they are currently experiencing,” he said.

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Weil reported from Washington. Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.


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Video: During a visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France on June 9, President Biden spoke of the need to foster and strengthen U.S. alliances around the world.© 2024 , The Washington Post

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