Biden marks Jan. 6 anniversary by calling Trump a threat to democracy and freedom

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(VALLEY FORGE, Penn.) — In his first major campaign event of 2024, President Joe Biden on Friday, the eve of the third anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, delivered a speech near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to argue democracy and fundamental freedoms are under threat if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House.

The president was closely involved in writing the speech, aides told ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Mary Bruce, after he met this week with historians and scholars at the White House, and in what seemed to be especially personal remarks, he said Trump and far-right extremists are a threat and a danger to the freedoms on which the country was founded, echoing familiar themes he argued during the 2020 campaign, which he called “a battle for the soul of the nation.”

“The topic of my speech today is deadly serious. And I think it needs to be made at the outset of this campaign,” he began.

“Today we are here to answer the most important of questions: Is democracy still America’s ‘sacred cause’?” he continued, repeating a phrase used by George Washington. “This is not rhetorical, academic, or hypothetical. Whether democracy’s still America’s ‘sacred cause’ is the most urgent question of our time. And it’s what the 2024 election is all about,” he said.

“The choice is clear. Donald Trump’s campaign is about him. Not America, not you. Donald Trump’s campaign is obsessed with the past, not the future,” Biden said. “He’s willing to sacrifice our democracy, to put himself at power.”

Later in his remarks, he said, “Today, I make this sacred pledge to you, the defense, protection, and preservation of American democracy will remain, as it has been, the central cause of my presidency. America, as we begin this election year, we must be clear, democracy is on the ballot. Your freedom is on the ballot.”

Attendees included young people motivated by the Jan. 6 attack to get involved in politics, “voter protection volunteers” from the 2020 election, and elected officials directly impacted by the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

The Biden-Harris campaign has billed the location in the election battleground state as being a “stone’s throw” away where then-Gen. Washington, leading the Continental Army, “transformed a disorganized alliance of colonial militias into a cohesive coalition united in their fight for our democracy” nearly 250 years ago.

Biden made the afternoon remarks at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, which is actually about 15 miles from the Revolutionary War site that’s considered the birthplace of the American army.

“This Saturday will mark the three-year anniversary of when, with encouragement from Donald Trump, a violent mob breached our nation’s Capitol,” Biden campaign manager Julie-Chavez Rodriguez told reporters in a call previewing the speech. “It was the first time in our nation’s history that a president tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.”

“Let’s all take a moment to sit with the gravity and significance of the moment we’re all living through,” Biden communications director Michael Tyler added later. “The leading candidate of a major party in the United States is running for president so that he can systematically dismantle and destroy our democracy.”

With Iowa’s Republican primary 10 days away, and Biden facing polling woes for months, he took a more aggressive posture against Trump, but some Democratic strategists question whether the “threat to democracy” message will resonate with Americans now that it’s been three years since Jan. 6 and Trump was in the White House.

“The venue makes some sense and the timing makes some sense. It makes sense on January 6th, but don’t kid yourself. On January 8th and 9th, Americans will still be going to the grocery store,” Democratic strategist James Carville told ABC News in a phone interview. “People live in the economy and experience it many times a day. They don’t live on January 6th.”

Democratic strategist Tim Hogan, who worked on presidential campaigns for Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Hillary Clinton, said the Biden campaign should take every opportunity to draw a sharp contrast with Trump.

“Trump is operating behind this smoke screen of a GOP primary right now. So, it’s important to clarify and focus now on the threat that he poses, so if and when he emerges as the Republican nominee, the Biden campaign can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Hogan told ABC News.

“Are there many things you have to talk about in a presidential campaign? Absolutely. Voters care about their future, and Donald Trump poses a threat to them in a lot of different ways…All of that is going to be part of the messaging,” he said.

Hogan pointed to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released this week showing 55% of Americans believe Jan. 6, 2021, was “an attack on democracy that should never be forgotten” and a 56% majority say Trump is probably guilty of a criminal conspiracy to overturn the election.

But views of Jan. 6 have grown increasingly divided along partisan lines as misinformation about the attack has run rampant.

The same poll found 25% of Americans believe the falsehood that the FBI was responsible for the Jan. 6 attack, and that while 77% of Democrats say that those in the pro-Trump mob who entered the Capitol were “mostly violent,” the number is 18% among Republicans, down from 26% in 2021. Seven in 10 Republicans say too much is being made of the Capitol attack, and 36% of Americans believe Biden’s victory was illegitimate, up from two years ago.

Americans appear to agree that democracy is at risk in 2024, but for different reasons.

A poll from December by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, found 87% of Democrats and 54% of independents believe a second Trump term would negatively affect U.S. democracy. At the same time, 82% of Republicans said democracy would be weakened in another Biden term, with 56% of independents agreeing.

Friday’s speech was rescheduled from Saturday due to predictions of bad weather in Valley Forge, where Washington and his troops struggled to survive a brutal winter.

The Biden campaign also used the symbolic setting to highlight how, unlike Trump, the nation’s first president left office voluntarily despite calls to stay on. Deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks told reporters that George Washington “united American willpower and went on to lead this nation as commander and as president – before relinquishing power – the ultimate precedent and the experiment of American democracy.”

Biden has frequently called out Trump as his “predecessor” in closed-door campaign fundraisers, but Friday’s speech could see him make stronger, public attacks, in which he condemns Trump’s anti-immigrant comments — what Biden calls “Nazi rhetoric.” He’s described Trump’s vision to lead “with revenge and retribution,” often qualifying how he cites Trump’s language statements with “his words.”

Trump, the consistent frontrunner for the Republican nomination, is facing 91 criminal charges against him in four felony cases, with one case concerning his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden. He continues to deny any wrongdoing.

304 days to go

The campaign speech near Valley Forge was announced in conjunction with Biden making a trip Monday to Charleston, South Carolina, to speak on political violence and extremism at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church, where nine Black Americans were murdered by a white supremacist in a 2015 mass shooting.

The campaign says the choice of locations was designed to reinforce to Americans what Biden sees as what’s at stake in November’s election — the ideals of freedom and democracy on which the nation was founded 250 years ago.

“Whether it is white supremacists descending on the historic American city of Charlottesville, the assault on our nation’s capital on January 6, or a white supremacist murdering churchgoers at Mother Emanuel nearly nine years ago,” Fulks told reporters, “America’s worried about the rise in political violence and determined to stand against it.”

Leading up to Friday’s speech, the Biden campaign released its first television campaign ad of 2024, part of a half-million-dollar blitz in key swing states and digital platforms — in which he’s heard calling the preservation of democracy the central issue of his presidency.

In narrating the ad, Biden does not call out Trump by name but warns against “an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs in our democracy,” over images of the Capitol attack and “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, an event he has said propelled him to run for office in 2020.

To help frame his speech, the White House said Biden had lunch this week with historians and scholars to discuss what it called “ongoing threats to democracy and democratic institutions both here in America and around the world.”

Former Vice President Kamala Harris is also traveling to South Carolina, the first state where Democrats will head to the polls on Feb. 3, at least two times in January. She’s set to launch a “reproductive freedoms tour” in Milwaukee on Jan. 22, on the anniversary of the now-overruled Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

Trump, meanwhile, is holding several “commit to caucus” rallies in Iowa this weekend.

ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent Mary Bruce contributed to this report.

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