WASHINGTON – One month into his presidency, Joe Biden made clear his distaste for even naming the man he had ousted from the Oval Office, declaring, “I'm tired of talking about Trump.”
“The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people,” he said in a CNN town hall.
But now, Biden is eagerly naming and singling out the erstwhile “former guy” in prepared remarks and on social media, elevating Donald Trump in a way that Biden and White House aides didn't do during the first 18 months of his term.
Speaking virtually to a group of Black law enforcement executives this past week, Biden accused the former president of stoking a “medieval hell” for police officers who fended off Jan. 6 rioters, adding that “Donald Trump lacked the courage to act.”
Biden's Twitter feed repeated those words -- a jarring sight for a White House that has tried to expunge any references to the former president and, in particular, his name.
And when Biden emerged from isolation after a bout with COVID-19, he pointedly noted that he could continue working from the White House residence while Trump had to be airlifted to the hospital for treatment after his own diagnosis, at a time when vaccines were not available and the then-president took a cavalier approach to mitigation measures.
For some Democrats, Biden’s willingness to engage directly with Trump was overdue.
“It’s like Lord Voldemort, right? You gotta say his name and show that you’re not afraid of him,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. “It’s good to see that the president is naming Donald Trump, as we all should.”
Biden’s increasingly combative posture comes as a stream of revelations pour out about Trump and his conduct during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, and amid growing speculation that the Republican will launch a comeback bid as early as this fall.
Despite Biden’s sinking approval ratings, even among members of his own party, he still consolidates the vast majority of Democratic voters behind him when presented as the party’s choice against Trump in a hypothetical 2024 campaign.
The first major effort from Biden to zero in on Trump came Jan. 6, 2022, when he delivered a speech on the one-year anniversary of the riot. Biden condemned his predecessor for holding a “dagger at the throat of democracy” by spreading repeatedly disproven lies that Trump did not lose in 2020.
But even then, Biden refused to call out Trump by name, inviting questions about why.
“I did not want to turn it into a contemporary political battle between me and the president,” Biden explained after his remarks at the Capitol. “It’s way beyond that.”
Other Democrats say Biden, who campaigned on unifying a country riven by partisanship, was right to steer the spotlight away from Trump at a time when Democrats had regained control of Washington for the first time in a decade and were set to embark on an ambitious agenda and move on from the chaotic Trump years.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he, too, struggled how much to focus on the former president once Trump left office.
“I think a lot of us just hoped he would go away and if we stopped talking about him, everybody else would stop talking about him,” he said. “But that’s not how it’s turned out. He’s running for president and he still runs the Republican Party, and I don’t think we can disengage anymore.”
This past week, Biden left no doubt he was prepared — perhaps even eager — to directly challenge Trump in a way he hadn’t before.
In prerecorded remarks to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives’ annual conference, Biden made repeated references to the “defeated” former president who did nothing as law enforcement officers worked for hours to protect the Capitol as lawmakers met to certify Biden’s victory.
“The police were heroes that day. Donald Trump lacked the courage to act,” Biden said in his remarks. “The brave women and men in blue all across this nation should never forget that.”
Biden's Twitter feeds amplified those words and promoted his repeated references to Trump. A tweet a day later noted that the “ex-president” opposes limiting “military-style weapons” that Biden says need to be barred.
“When my predecessor got COVID, he had to get helicoptered to Walter Reed Medical Center. He was severely ill. Thankfully, he recovered,” Biden said. “When I got COVID, I worked from upstairs of the White House.” Biden emphasized that the vaccines, at-home tests and anti-viral treatments he enjoyed during his recovery were readily available to the American public.
White House aides believe those two topics — law and order, and management of the pandemic — are among the areas where Biden can make the strongest contrast with the previous administration. Biden himself has made no secret he is hungry to run against Trump again, telling an Israeli television station recently that he “would not be disappointed” about a potential rematch.
As for the former president, Biden’s tweets and comments have not come up in recent conversations between Trump advisers, according to two people familiar with the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private discussions.
“Joe Biden and the Democrats are destroying America, just like President Trump predicted," Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said. "From a recession at home to wars abroad, there’s nothing Joe Biden can say that will distract from the suffering he has inflicted on the American people. His interns should stop writing lame Tweets and start writing a resignation letter."
Biden's new, more confrontational stance is another way that the White House has tried to draw a clearer contrast with Republicans before the November elections as Democrats are battered with the traditional headwinds faced by the incumbent party and contending with voter discontent over inflation and the general direction of the country.
Republicans are skeptical the strategy will work, even as Trump flirts with formally announcing a 2024 bid before the fall vote. They also worry his candidacy could tear away focus from the GOP’s effort to make the elections a referendum on the Democrats’ stewardship of Washington.
“I get it. If I was being held responsible for 9.1% inflation and a wobbly economy and southern border disarray, I’d probably try and change the subject too,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said Biden’s largely tempered public persona and his careful tendencies were what made him appealing to a broad swath of voters.
“But I think he’s coming to the same conclusion that the majority of the country has come to, which is that the former president attempted a coup d’etat,” Schatz said. “Although President Biden tries to avoid inflammatory rhetoric, I think he’s found that there’s no other way to say it.”
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.