WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Joe Biden said Tuesday that President Donald Trump has a “lot to answer for” amid reports that he was advised as early as March 2019 of intelligence that suggested Russia was offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans.
“It’s an absolute dereliction of duty if any of this is even remotely true,” the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee told reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, after giving a speech excoriating Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden stopped short of saying Trump had violated his oath of office or should face any consequences from Congress, which has already impeached and tried him on charges related to his handling of foreign affairs. But, Biden, said, “If these allegations are true and he did nothing about any of this, then in fact I think the public should, unrelated to my running, conclude that this man is unfit to be president of the United States of America.”
The Associated Press has reported that at least one of Trump’s daily intelligence briefings included evidence of Russian bounties. Trump has insisted that he was never briefed on such details because they weren’t credible.
Biden said Tuesday that he has not had a classified briefing on the material or on Trump’s handling of it, but he said he may request one soon. Major party nominees receive daily intelligence briefings, but Biden is not yet the official nominee, and he noted that he no longer has access to the same classified information that he could regularly review during his two terms as vice president.
Alluding to that experience, Biden said Trump “at a minimum” should have called the Joint Chiefs of Staff together with other national security leaders and pushed to reconcile any discrepancies in the intelligence and draw a firm conclusion. And he said, were he president, he would call Russian President Vladimir Putin and say, “Vladimir, old buddy, if any of this is true … you’ve got a big problem."
Biden has, throughout the campaign, hammered Trump for “cozying up” to Putin and other autocratic leaders across the globe, and Biden warned as recently as Monday that Putin’s long-term goal is to destabilize NATO and Western alliances that have been in place since World War II. He has said repeatedly that if Trump is reelected, NATO will cease to exist in any meaningful form.
The Q&A with reporters and the speech that preceded it was an opportunity for Biden to draw sharp contrasts with Trump on topics including foreign policy, the pandemic and cognitive ability.
Biden noted that Trump's explanation of not knowing about intelligence on Russia was evidence of a president who “doesn’t seem to be cognitively aware of what’s going on.” Trump, 74, and his allies have repeatedly pushed the narrative that Biden, 77, is mentally unfit for the presidency.
“I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against,” Biden said.
On the coronavirus pandemic, Biden said that Trump is “waving the white flag” and refusing to lead the country through a pandemic that has killed 125,000 Americans and led to Depression-level unemployment.
“Despite the administration’s propaganda that their response should be a cause for celebration, despite President Trump’s request that we should slow down testing because he thinks that makes it look bad, COVID-19 is still here,” Biden said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
Biden said a national system of testing for the virus and tracing the exposure path of those who are diagnosed is necessary to restore confidence for businesses to reopen and consumers to reengage in the economy. And he added that widespread use of masks and social distancing practices must be come normal protocol for the “foreseeable future,” and he warned that COVID-19 “will likely worsen” during the coming flu season.
“We can’t continue half recovering, half getting worse,” Biden said. “We can’t continue half with a plan and half just hoping for the best. We can’t defeat this virus with a piecemeal approach.”
Biden said he has not been tested for the virus but expects to be tested “relatively soon,” and he noted that Secret Service agents and staff who are around him are tested regularly.
Biden's campaign said separately that one of his first actions as president, if he wins, would be to ask Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s leading infectious-disease expert, to continue serving. Trump has often contradicted Fauci’s guidelines on the coronavirus, and the veteran of six administrations has been largely out of public view in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases have spiked across the country.
Biden delivered his remarks just miles from his residence, where he’s spent most of his campaign time since early March, when governors and mayors around the country first began issuing stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines to prevent the pandemic’s spread.
As he has for weeks, Biden hammered Trump for giving Americans a “false choice” between “lives and livelihoods.”
Biden reminded voters of actions he’s called for over several months, in contrast to Trump downplaying the virus and bemoaning governors’ orders to shut down businesses. Biden said he’d implement those plans as president, focusing on a national testing-and-tracing system that he touts as the key to restoring enough confidence for businesses to reopen safely and consumers to re-engage with the economy.
Biden also emphasized personal protective equipment and investments in vaccine research and treatment methods.
Biden called in March for Trump to use the Defense Production Act, usually a wartime statute, to direct private sector manufacturing capacity to produce more health care materials needed to prevent, treat and combat the virus. Trump later said he was invoking the act to ramp up production of ventilators, though he spent weeks arguing that governors should be responsible for securing their own supplies.
Biden acknowledged Tuesday that his recommendations were repetitions of things he called for weeks or even months ago. That, he said, is simply because Trump hasn't done his job.
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Atlanta.