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Biden’s prime-time speech: Trumpism threatens democracy

Biden, who had largely avoided even referring to “the former guy” by name during his first year in office, has grown increasingly vocal in calling out Trump personally.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will sound an alarm Thursday night about what he views as “extremist” threats to American democracy from the restive forces of Trumpism, aiming to reframe the November elections as part of an unceasing battle for the “soul of the nation.”

Nearly two years after he defeated Donald Trump, it's a reprise of Biden's 2020 campaign theme, casting the midterm election stakes in as dire terms as those that sent him to the Oval Office. His prime-time speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia will lay out what he sees as the risks from those he has dubbed “ultra-MAGA Republicans” to the nation's system of government, its standing abroad and its citizens' way of life.

The explicit effort by Biden to marginalize Trump and his “Make America Great Again” adherents marks a sharp turn for the president, who preached his desire to bring about national unity in his Inaugural address. White House officials said it reflects his mounting concern about Trump conservatives' ideological proposals and 2020 election denialism.

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Biden, who had largely avoided even referring to “the former guy” by name during his first year in office, has grown increasingly vocal in calling out Trump personally. Now, emboldened by his party's recent legislative wins and wary of Trump's return to the headlines, Biden is sharpening his attacks.

At a Democratic fundraiser last week, Biden likened the “MAGA philosophy” to “semi-fascism.”

In Philadelphia, White House officials said, Biden intends to hark back to the 2017 white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, which he says brought him out of political retirement to challenge Trump. Biden plans to argue that the country faces a similar crossroads in the coming months.

“The president thinks that there is an extremist threat to our democracy,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday. “It's not stopping. It's continuing.”

Biden allies stress that he is not rejecting the entirety of the GOP and would use his remarks to call on traditional Republicans to join him in condemning Trump and his followers. It's a balancing act, given that more than 74 million people voted for Trump in 2020.

“I respect conservative Republicans,” Biden said last week. “I don’t respect these MAGA Republicans.”

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy dismissed any such distinction, accusing the president of trying to "disparage hard-working Americans.” He planned to deliver a preemptive rebuttal to Biden from Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the president was born.

In remarks earlier Thursday on Fox News, McCarthy said Biden was “trying to distract from the disaster that he’s created in this country.”

A senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview Biden's remarks, said the president's speech wasn't aimed at one politician or the GOP as a whole, but rather the Trump supporters who have denied the 2020 election results and sow doubt about future contests. The official said that Biden would acknowledge the importance of political disagreements in a country as diverse as the U.S., but aim to draw a line at rhetoric and actions that call into question the health of the country's democracy.

The official said Biden aimed to speak “not as a Democratic president, but as a president of a democracy.”

Larry Diamond, an expert on democracy and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said calling Trump out for attacks on democracy "can be manipulated or framed as being partisan. And if you don’t call it out, you are shrinking from an important challenge in the defense of democracy.”

Even this week, Trump was posting on his beleaguered social media platform about overturning the 2020 election results and holding a new presidential election, which would violate the Constitution.

Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, said it’s not unusual for there to be tension between a president and his successor, but it’s “unprecedented for a former president to be actively trying to undermine the U.S. Constitution.”

“The challenge that President Biden faces is to get on with his agenda while still doing what he needs to uphold the Constitution,” Naftali said. “That’s not easy.”

The White House has tried to keep Biden removed from the legal and political maelstrom surrounding the Department of Justice’s discovery of classified documents in Trump's Florida home. Still, Biden has taken advantage of some Republicans’ quick condemnation of federal law enforcement.

“You can’t be pro-law enforcement and pro-insurrection,” Biden said Tuesday in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.

Biden's appearance Thursday night was promoted as an official, taxpayer-funded event, a mark of how the president views defeating the Trump agenda as much as a policy aim as a political one. The major broadcast television networks were not expected to carry the address live.

Biden's trip to Philadelphia is just one of his three to the state within a week, a sign of Pennsylvania's importance in the midterms, with competitive Senate and governor's races. However, neither Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democrats' Senate nominee, nor Attorney General Josh Shapiro, their pick for governor, was expected to attend Thursday night.

Trump plans a rally this weekend in Scranton, Biden's birthplace.

The White House intended the speech to unite familiar themes: holding out bipartisan legislative wins on guns and infrastructure as evidence that democracies “can deliver,” pushing back on GOP policies on guns and abortion that Biden says are out of step with most people's views, and rejecting efforts to undermine confidence in the nation’s election or diminish its standing abroad.

The challenges have only increased since the tumult surrounding the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Lies surrounding that presidential race have triggered harassment and death threats against state and local election officials and new restrictions on mail voting in Republican-dominated states. County election officials have faced pressure to ban the use of voting equipment, efforts generated by conspiracy theories that voting machines were somehow manipulated to steal the election.

Candidates who dispute Trump’s loss have been inspired to run for state and local election posts, promising to restore integrity to a system that has been undermined by false claims.

There is no evidence of any widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines. Judges, including ones appointed by Trump, dismissed dozens of lawsuits filed after the election, and Trump’s own attorney general called the claims bogus. Yet Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research polling has shown about two-thirds of Republicans say they do not think Biden was legitimately elected president.

This year, election officials face not only the continuing threat of foreign interference but also ransomware, politically motivated hackers and insider threats. Over the past year, security breaches have been reported at a small number of local election offices in which authorities are investigating whether office staff improperly accessed or provided improper access to sensitive voting technology.

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By ZEKE MILLER and CHRIS MEGERIAN Associated Press

Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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