Trump seeks ‘revenge and retribution’ Biden says in Jan. 6 anniversary speech

By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland

VALLEY FORGE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) – Joe Biden on Friday accused Republican Donald Trump, his likely 2024 election opponent, of instigating the Jan. 6 attacks and plotting revenge on those seeking to punish him, as the president put the future of U.S. democracy at the center of his bid for re-election.

“He told the crowd to fight like hell. And all hell was unleashed,” Biden said of the 2021 attack. “Then as usual he left the dirty work to others. He retreated to the White House.”

Biden marked three years since the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks with his first major campaign speech of the year, applying the heat on Trump as he pushes against questions about his handling of the U.S. economy and his age, 81. Trump is 77.

Whether Biden’s Friday speech will make an impact 10 months before Election Day – in a politically polarized country where voters get news and information from wildly different sources – remains to be seen.

But it set the tone and laid out the stakes of what is likely to be a bitter battle. Biden characterized Trump and his followers as dangerous outliers and asked Democrats, independents and “mainstream Republicans” who cherish U.S. democracy to back him.

“Democracy is on the ballot. Your freedom is on the ballot,” he said.

Biden said Trump’s re-election bid is based on trying to seek “revenge and retribution” against his political enemies. He reminded Americans that Trump has called his opponents “vermin,” the “same exact language used in Nazi Germany.”

“How dare he? Who in God’s name does he think he is?” said Biden, lowering his voice to a whisper.

Trump, president from 2017 to 2021, who is leading the field for the Republican nomination for president, contested his defeat in the 2020 election, prompting thousands of his supporters to attack the U.S Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The failed bid to stop formal certification of the result resulted in the deaths of five people and injured dozens of police officers.

Biden also criticized Republicans for changing their tone on Trump, saying that when the attacks of Jan. 6 on the U.S. Capitol took place, “there was no doubt about the truth” and that some Republican members of Congress and Fox News commentators had publicly and privately condemned the uprising.

“But now as time has gone on — politics, fear, money – have all intervened. And those MAGA voices who know the truth about Trump and January 6th have abandoned the truth and abandoned our democracy,” Biden said.

Republicans challenging Trump in the 2024 nominating contest have mostly steered clear of criticizing Trump’s actions on that day, as opinion polls show Republican voters are less likely to blame Trump for his actions on Jan. 6 than they were three years ago.

Before his speech at a community college in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, Biden took a tour of the Valley Forge site of George Washington’s Revolutionary War-era winter headquarters in the bitterly cold months of late 1777 and early 1778.

In his speech, Biden contrasted Trump’s bid to hang on to power to the example set by Washington, who stepped down willingly after two terms as he first U.S. president.

Biden returned again and again to Jan. 6, including a vivid description of what transpired that day, including protestors calling for the hanging of then-Vice President Mike Pence. People died because Trump’s lies “brought a mob to Washington,” he said.

In excerpts of a speech expected in Sioux Center, Iowa, later Friday, Trump called Biden’s record “an unbroken streak of weakness, incompetence, corruption and failure. That’s why Crooked Joe is staging his pathetic fearmongering campaign event in Pennsylvania today.”

Ahead of Biden’s speech, the Trump campaign released an ad accusing Biden of being “the true destroyer of democracy” citing special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into Trump’s actions on Jan. 6.

Smith, a veteran prosecutor known for pursuing mob bosses, has charged Trump with conspiring to illegally subvert the results of the 2020 election. Trump has been charged in four separate criminal cases, with his first trial likely as soon as March.

Biden’s attorney general Merrick Garland said Friday his department was “upholding the rule of law and we are protecting the American people.” Biden has declined to comment on Trump’s legal troubles but has said he has no doubt that the Republican supported insurrection.

As president, Biden has warned about the future of U.S. democracy before, including on the first anniversary of Jan. 6, and in a fiery Sept. 2022 speech where he called Trump and his Republican followers extremists who threatened to take the country backward.

The 2024 race is expected to be closely contested, and Biden aides see Pennsylvania, home to Biden’s Scranton birthplace, as a must-win state. He won in 2020 with 50.01% of the vote. In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania with 48.58% of the vote.

Biden’s arguments have done little to soothe his own supporters’ concerns about the state of the economy or his age, 81.

(This story has been refiled to remove an extraneous word in paragraph 10)

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Andrew Goudsward; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Heather Timmons, Jonathan Oatis and Alistair Bell)