Ever since President Donald Trump was caught trying to solicit help from Ukraine to help his reelection campaign, I have been waiting for former vice president Joe Biden to go on offense. Aside from a fiery retort to a reporter asking about his and his son’s actions in Ukraine, Biden has let Congress and Trump have the floor. That has not worked to Biden’s advantage, and his lead over the field has slowly shrunk.
On Wednesday, Biden finally responded in a Reno, Nevada, speech with a full-throated attack on Trump. He made clear Trump is not going to intimidate him or his family. (“He is repeatedly smearing me and my family. His party fans out to carry the smear. Millions of dollars in dishonest attack ads are blanketing the airwaves — paid for by the special interests so well served by his presidency,” he said. “Let me make something clear to Trump and his hatchet men and the special interests funding his attacks against me — I’m not going anywhere.”) He then appropriately pivoted to Trump, pointing out that Trump’s impeachment inquiry is about what Trump said and did.
Biden declared: “It’s not about Donald Trump’s antics. It’s about what has brought Donald Trump, and the nation, to this sobering moment in our history — and to the choice facing us in 2020. What has brought us here is simply this: the abuse of power.” Putting Trump’s private interests above the country’s, Biden argued, is what Trump’s presidency is all about. “I’m not surprised Donald Trump asked a foreign government for help to beat me. I’m not surprised the NRA met with Trump to prop him up,” he said. “And I’m not surprised Trump’s special-interest friends are spending millions to attack me.”
He explained what he should have when the story first broke:
“We weren’t pressing Ukraine to get rid of a tough prosecutor. We were pressing them to replace a weak prosecutor who wouldn’t do his job with someone who, at the time, we hoped would finally crack down on corruption.
“Trump, on the other hand, was secretly putting at risk our national security to pursue a personal political vendetta against me because he does not want to run against me.
“And what is truly stunning about this are the exhortations involved in holding back desperately needed military assistance and political support from our Ukrainian friends while they are engaged in a live war with the Russians — a war that has cost thousands of Ukrainian lives.”
Biden would do well to keep repeating this message. He can also provide some necessary detail.
First, Biden should make clear Trump is once again taking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side against the United States. Either from Putin or from one of his useful idiots in the right-wing media, Trump has gotten the idea that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind the 2016 election interference. That makes him once more (still) Russia’s ally in sowing confusion about the events of 2016. That is also how he tries to justify his foot-dragging on threats to our election security, and puts at risk allies who are the victims of Russian aggression. Quite simply, Trump is a Putin patsy, disloyal to the United States, or both. Biden should say so, arguing that this makes Trump dangerously unfit for the presidency.
Second, the last thing Trump cares about is fighting corruption. His personal emissary Rudy Giuliani is one of many influence-peddlers trying to cozy up to anti-democratic actors in Ukraine to make a buck. Nothing more clearly captures the degree to which Trump and his cronies contribute to foreign corruption than Giuliani consulting imprisoned ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort about Ukraine. Trump’s ongoing financial self-dealing, wooing of foreign money and family conflicts of interest (recall Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have been conducting business while working in the White House) is one reason that Trump so admires foreign autocrats. They bond over graft. This also would be yet another reason to throw Trump out of office as soon as possible.
Third, Biden would do well to emphasize that Trump did not hire the best people. Trump hired pliable enablers and co-conspirators such as Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who now spend their time trying to interfere with the investigation and carrying out Trump’s private political agenda. Biden should make clear that anyone who participated in an illegal conspiracy and coverup will be held accountable to the extent the facts and law warrant. Biden might want to suggest that all government employees with information relevant to the impeachment inquiry step forward now, for the sake of the country and their own careers.
In sum, Biden took a good first step with his Wednesday speech, but he now must lean into attacks on Trump’s abuse of power and attendant clueless foreign policy (spoon-fed to him by Putin) and crony-filled administration. Offering himself as the candidate whom Trump is most scared of and who is best-equipped to undo the damage Trump has wrought might be just the message Biden needs to regain momentum.