One of Donald Trump’s biggest frauds is that he’s a strong leader. He says he’s tough on China, tough on borders, and tough on looters and anarchists. But when toughness really counts, he’s craven. He sucks up to Vladimir Putin, writes love letters to Kim Jong-un, begs Xi Jinping for help in getting reelected, and causes thousands of deaths by refusing to face a catastrophic virus. On Monday, Joe Biden launched a frontal assault on Trump’s cowardice. And Trump, in a press conference afterward, validated Biden’s indictment.
Trump thinks the recent wave of violence in certain cities—some of it related to protests against shootings by police—can help him change the subject from COVID-19 to law and order. Biden, speaking in Pittsburgh, directly addressed that issue. “If Donald Trump wants to ask the question, ‘Who will keep you safer as president?,’ let’s answer that question,” said Biden. “When I was vice president, violent crime fell 15 percent. … The murder rate is up 26 percent across the nation this year under Donald Trump.”
Biden argued that in street clashes between left- and right-wing extremists, real political courage consists of standing up to the miscreants on your own side. Trump hasn’t just failed that test, Biden said; he’s ducked it. “He’s got no problem with right-wing militia, white supremacists, and vigilantes with assault weapons, often better armed than the police,” said Biden. Trump’s “failure to call on his own supporters to stop acting as an armed militia in this country shows how weak he is.”
Biden coupled this attack with a scathing assessment of Trump’s appeasement of Russia. “The Kremlin has put bounties on the heads of American soldiers,” said Biden. But “instead of telling Vladimir Putin … that there’d be a heavy price to pay if they dare touch an American soldier, this president doesn’t even bring up the subject in his multiple phone calls with Putin.” Biden also pointed to reports that “Russian forces just attacked American troops in Syria, injuring our service members. Did you hear the president say a single word? Did he lift one finger? Never before has an American president played such a subservient role to a Russian leader. It’s not only dangerous. It’s humiliating.”
Trump has surrendered to the novel coronavirus as well, Biden noted. The former vice president likened the disease to a wartime adversary, noting that it had killed more Americans than “every war since Korea combined.” He observed that COVID’s death toll dwarfs the current threat from street violence. “More cops have died from COVID this year than have been killed on patrol,” said Biden. While hyping manageable threats, Trump ignores the big one.
Above all, Biden lambasted Trump for shrinking from his duties. Images of urban violence in Trump’s ads, Biden noted, “are images of Donald Trump’s America today. He keeps telling you if only he was president, it wouldn’t happen. … He is president.” This flight from responsibility—running away from bad news in Syria and Afghanistan, blaming violence on mayors, abandoning governors to deal with COVID on their own—defines Trump’s failure as a leader. He is, in Biden’s words, “a bystander in his own presidency.”
Against this cowardice, Biden promised to govern the country with backbone. He rebuked left-wing vandals who abuse the protest movement. “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting,” Biden declared. “It’s lawlessness. … And those who do it should be prosecuted.” He mocked Trump’s simultaneous caricatures of him as an establishment dinosaur and a communist stooge. “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” he joked.
But Biden also argued that to lead with strength, a president must do more than bluster. He must listen and heal. The reason Trump can’t extinguish racial unrest, said Biden, is that “he refuses to even acknowledge that there’s a racial justice problem.” And the reason Trump can’t get aid to people whose livelihoods have been wrecked by COVID is that he can’t “pull together the leaders in Congress.” Biden contrasted Trump’s insecurity and rigidity with his own record of bringing people together: police, nonwhite communities, and lawmakers, mayors, and governors from opposing parties.
At a press conference hours after Biden spoke, Trump vindicated Biden’s criticisms of him. The president disowned responsibility for the violence in cities, calling them “Democrat-run.” When a reporter asked Trump why he wasn’t meeting with the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot in the back seven times by police last week, the president said it wasn’t safe, because the family wanted its attorney to join the conversation by phone. “I thought it would be better not to do anything where there are lawyers involved,” he pleaded.
Another reporter asked Trump why he hadn’t said anything about his fans who drove trucks through Portland on Saturday, firing paintballs and pepper spray at adversaries and bystanders. “That was a peaceful protest,” Trump said of the truck caravan, and “paint is not bullets.” When a third reporter asked about Kyle Rittenhouse, the white vigilante who shot two people to death in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday, Trump defended the shooter. “He was trying to get away from them,” said Trump. “They very violently attacked him.” If Rittenhouse hadn’t shot them, Trump argued, “he probably would have been killed.”
Trump is a coward. He hides from COVID. He refuses to confront Putin about the alleged bounties. He refuses to criticize assailants and killers who support him. He won’t even talk to a Black family about a loved one shot by police. He’s afraid of the family’s lawyer. Lots of people are cowards, but you can’t give them this kind of responsibility. When the president is a coward, people die.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.