WASHINGTON — In one of the most forceful speeches of his political career, President Joe Biden took sharp aim at former President Donald Trump on Thursday, accusing him of inciting the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol last year with a “web of lies” about the 2020 election because he could not accept his legitimate defeat.
Speaking from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol on the anniversary of that riot, Biden said the former president and his followers had "held a dagger at the throat of democracy."
"They didn't come here out of patriotism or principle. They came here in rage,” Biden said. He rebutted the lies that Trump and other Republicans have spread about the 2020 election, bluntly criticizing his predecessor without mentioning his name.
"We must be absolutely clear about what is true and what is a lie," Biden said. "A former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election. He's done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interest as more important than his country's interest and America's interest."
"He can't accept he lost," Biden continued.
Biden ticked through the various falsehoods that Trump and his allies have spread about the 2020 election, pointing out that they have never been able to provide any proof for their claims, and portraying Trump as a president who was afraid to lose.
"Even before the first ballot was cast, the former president was pre-emptively sowing doubt about the election results," Biden said. "He's not just a former president. He's a defeated former president."
Biden, who has repeatedly said that Jan. 6 was one of the darkest days in U.S. history, asked listeners to close their eyes as he recounted the day's violent events — from attacks against police offers to death threats against the vice president and the speaker of the House — all while Trump watched on TV from the White House.
"They weren't looking to uphold the will of the people, they were looking to deny the will of the people," Biden said of the rioters. "They were looking to subvert the Constitution."
Biden has been reluctant throughout his presidency to criticize Trump by name even as his predecessor and other Republicans continue to convey lies about the validity of the 2020 election results.
Asked why he decided not to mention Trump by name, Biden told reporters that he "did not want to turn it into a contemporary political battle between me and the president, it's way beyond that."
There had been some disagreement among Democrats ahead of the Jan. 6 anniversary on whether to use the moment to put a renewed focus on passing voting rights legislation.
Some members of the party, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, had encouraged the White House to emphasize voting rights while some Biden allies had argued for keeping the two issues separate, saying that voting rights is about stopping the disenfranchisement of voters of color while Jan. 6 is about a violent attempt to upend the country’s democratic election process.
Although Biden made little mention of voting in his speech, Vice President Kamala Harris, who is tasked with leading the administration’s work on voting rights, used her brief introductory remarks to call on Congress to pass voting rights legislation.
"The work ahead will not be easy. Here in this very building, a decision will be made about whether we uphold the right to vote and ensure free and fair elections," Harris said. "We must pass the voting rights bills that are now before the Senate."
The president will give a separate speech on voting rights legislation on Tuesday in Atlanta.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., scheduled a series of events following the president's speech to mark the anniversary of the day thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a failed attempt to stop lawmakers from certifying Biden's victory in the presidential election. Some House members planned to share their personal accounts of the attack and historians will hold a discussion on the "historic perspective" of Jan. 6.
A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released Saturday found that 60 percent of Americans said Trump bears either a "great deal" or a "good amount" of responsibility for the attack.
The poll, however, found that Americans' views were deeply split along partisan lines, with 72 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Trump voters saying the former president bears "just some" responsibility or "none at all."
More than 700 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol riot and the House committee has interviewed a number of people close to Trump. The committee is expected to release a report on its findings before the 2022 midterm elections, when Republicans could win control of Congress and shut down that investigation.