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Trump's searing attacks give Biden a crucial test

CNN's Dana Bash speaks to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) about the violence that flared in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, is accused of shooting and killing two men and injuring a third Tuesday night.

Posted: Aug 30, 2020 12:45 PM
Updated: Aug 31, 2020 9:15 AM

Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump are going head-to-head on the hyper-sensitive issues of civic violence and racial justice in a potentially defining moment for a suddenly electrified battle for the White House.

At a raw moment in modern American political history, the rivals are emerging from conventions that offered starkly different visions of the future, with every day in the campaign increasingly crucial -- as some states prepare to start sending out absentee ballots in the coming weeks.

Biden will make a speech in Pittsburgh on Monday in which he will pose the question: 'Are you safe in Donald Trump's America?' The President -- despite pleas from the Wisconsin governor not to do so -- will travel to the violence-wracked city of Kenosha on Tuesday.

The President is painting an inaccurate picture of a nation consumed by street violence as he seeks to repair his standing among White suburban voters. Far from calming the situation, he appears to be inciting unrest, for instance praising a convoy of supporters heading into restive Portland, Oregon, as 'Great Patriots.' He also 'liked' a Twitter post encouraging people to read a thread of tweets that in part praised Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old charged with allegedly killing two protestors in Kenosha. Biden is meanwhile accusing the President of fanning the flames of violence and dividing the country for political gain.

'This president long ago forfeited any moral leadership in this country. He can't stop the violence -- because for years he has fomented it,' the former vice president is expected to say in his speech, according to excerpts released by his campaign.

'He may believe mouthing the words law and order makes him strong, but his failure to call on his own supporters to stop acting as an armed militia in this country shows you how weak he is.'

'Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is reelected?'

View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling

The implication of Trump's attacks is that there is a binary choice between supporting law enforcement and order, and offering understanding and a path to justice for Black Americans. His strategy follows a deeply misleading Republican convention which keyed on 'law and order' to distract from the death of more than 180,000 Americans in the mishandled pandemic.

The debate between Biden and Trump on protests and race is also unfolding against an extraordinary national reckoning that is causing difficult-to-gauge shifts in politics -- which last week saw NBA players and other athletes stop playing in an extraordinary demand for justice and police reform.

Political recriminations sharply worsened over the weekend, regarding Kenosha, where police a week earlier shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in the back. Clashes in Portland saw a man, reportedly a member of a far-right organization, shot dead.

Biden is under growing pressure to mount a high-profile response to Trump's searing attacks that brand him the tool of left-wing anarchists and 'Defund the Police' activists during a summer of protest and unrest following the death of George Floyd with a police officer's knee on his neck in May.

In an aggressive move Sunday previewing his speech, the Democratic nominee issued a statement accusing the President of 'fanning the flames of hate and division in our society' and called on him to condemn all forms of violence.

An effective speech and follow-up measures by Biden could allay Democrats' fears that a hardcore Republican law-and-order campaign could eat into Biden's polling lead, but also offer a glimpse into how he might lead as president. It's an opportunity for him to display his capacity for empathy and bringing people together -- and offer a possible route out of yet another crisis that Trump seems unable or unwilling to provide.

The President's attempt to move the election fight to what he believes is more favorable ground is coinciding with fresh signs of how he plans to use the power of his office in a bid to secure a second term. Democrats reacted with outrage Sunday after the Director of National Intelligence said he would halt in-person briefings for lawmakers on election security. And Dr. Stephen Hahn, the head of the Federal Drug Administration, added to concern the White House will put politics ahead of science when he raised the possibility in the Financial Times of an emergency use authorization for a coronavirus vaccine before Phase 3 trials are complete.

Trump campaign blasts protesters as 'terrorists' and Biden supporters

Exchanges between the two campaigns on Sunday talk shows shed light on how each candidate plans to respond to an extraordinary national moment in the tense days ahead -- and where they see liabilities to exploit in their rivals.

Trump and his campaign are behaving as if they think they have Biden in a vise. The Democratic nominee has strongly sided with Black Lives Matter protests, causing Trump to argue that he is either promoting or is a tool of looters who have burned parts of American cities. Biden has condemned violence on all sides, and despite the efforts of Trump and his conservative media cheerleaders, there is evidence that the violence is not just the work of far-left groups and that far-right anarchist organizations are also involved.

But in the frenzy of a late-stage presidential campaign, such distinctions are ignored. 'Make no mistake: These are left-wing terrorists and Joe Biden voters,' Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh tweeted on Sunday, after the President said in a wild rally in New Hampshire on Friday, 'Today's Democratic Party is full of hate ... protesters, your ass. They're not protesters ... they're agitators, they're rioters, they're looters.'

The President's strategy was laid bare in a comment by his outgoing counselor Kellyanne Conway last week when she told Fox News that 'the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better news for the very clear choice on who's best on public safety and law and order.'

On Sunday, on CNN's 'State of the Union,' Trump supporter and Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson declined the opportunity to specifically condemn the alleged vigilante who killed two protesters in Kenosha, repeatedly saying the 'the entire situation' was a 'tragedy.'

'I don't want to see anybody lose their life. I don't want to see the violence continue. I don't want to see businesses burned down. I don't want to see economic destruction. I condemn it all,' Johnson told CNN's Dana Bash. Trump has still not condemned the police shooting of Blake, who survived but is currently partially paralyzed. The President has asked for an investigation.

At the GOP convention, the Trump campaign largely framed protests and violence as naturally occurring -- rather than an outgrowth of the despair of African Americans amid repeated instances of police brutality. And on Sunday, he retweeted a video of Trump supporters in a convoy heading into the center of Portland, calling them 'Great Patriots.'

On NBC's 'Meet the Press,' White House chief of staff Mark Meadows made the odd claim that 'Most of Donald Trump's America is peaceful,' seeking to blame Democratic governors and mayors for failing to put a lid on unrest, but leaving the impression that the President is not leading the entire country.

The Democratic mayor of Portland, in turn, said Sunday that it is Trump who 'created the hate and the division' in an unyielding attack on the White House following the unrest there. 'Do you seriously wonder, Mr. President, why this is the first time in decades that America has seen this level of violence?' Mayor Ted Wheeler asked, speaking at a news conference.

The President's trip to Kenosha risks inflaming the situation further -- particularly after the state's Democratic governor wrote him a letter urging that he reconsider -- but will offer Trump a chance to stand with police officers and to present himself as a bulwark against what he claims is extremist violence sweeping the nation.

Democrats warn the trip will prove he is seeking to exploit unrest for his own personal political gain. 'I think his visit has one purpose, and one purpose only. And that is to agitate things and to make things worse,' California Rep. Karen Bass, a Biden supporter, said on 'State of the Union.' Biden aides had been considering a trip to Kenosha too, but a campaign official said they did not want a Biden visit to be disruptive or fuel more Trump criticism, CNN's Sarah Mucha and Jeff Zeleny reported Sunday.

But Biden answered that criticism in other ways. He used Trump's encouragement of supporters who risk exacerbating unrest as an example of why he is unfit for the Oval Office and should be denied a second term.

'He may believe tweeting about law and order makes him strong -- but his failure to call on his supporters to stop seeking conflict shows just how weak he is,' Biden said in his Sunday statement. 'He may think that war in our streets is good for his reelection chances, but that is not presidential leadership -- or even basic human compassion.'

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