POLITICS

Biden honors US war dead with a cemetery visit ending a French trip that served as a rebuke to Trump

Jun 8, 2024, 9:01 PM | Updated: Jun 9, 2024, 9:52 am

BELLEAU, France (AP) — President Joe Biden closed out his trip to France by paying his respects at an American military cemetery that Donald Trump notably skipped visiting when he was president, hoping his final stop Sunday will draw the stakes of the November election in stark relief.

Before returning to the United States, Biden honored America’s war dead at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery about an hour outside Paris. He placed a wreath at the cemetery chapel before an expanse of white headstones marking the final resting place of more than 2,200 U.S. soldiers who fought in World War I.

It was a solemn end to five days in which Trump was an unspoken yet unavoidable presence. On the surface, the trip marked the 80th anniversary of D-Day and celebrated the alliance between the United States and France. But during an election year when Trump has called into question fundamental understandings about America’s global role, Biden has embraced his Republican predecessor — and would-be successor — as a latent foil.

Every ode to the transatlantic partnership was a reminder that Trump could upend those relationships. Each reference to democracy stood a counterpoint to his rival’s efforts to overturn a presidential election. The myriad exhortations to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia created a contrast with Trump’s skepticism about providing U.S. assistance.

Biden’s paeans to the struggle between democracy and autocracy drew plaudits in Europe, where the prospect of a return to Trump’s turbulent reign has sparked no shortage of anxiety. But it remains to be seen how the message will resonate with American voters, as Biden’s campaign struggles to connect the dire warnings the Democratic president so often delivers about his rival with people’s daily concerns.

The visit to the cemetery served as a moment to underscore the contrast once more.

“It’s the same story,” Biden said. “America showed up. America showed up to stop the Germans. America showed up to make sure that they did not prevail. And America shows up when we’re needed just like our allies show for us.”

During a 2018 trip to France, Trump skipped plans to go to the cemetery, a decision that the White House blamed on weather at the time. However, subsequent reports said that Trump told aides he didn’t want to go because he viewed the dead soldiers as “suckers” and “losers.” Trump has denied the comments, although they were later corroborated by his chief of staff at the time, John Kelly.

Trump’s purported insults have become a regular feature of Biden’s campaign speeches, including during an April rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

“These soldiers were heroes, just as every American who has served this nation,” Biden said. “Believing otherwise, that alone is disqualifying for someone to seek this office.”

Biden ignored a direct question about Trump at the cemetery but said it was important to visit the hallowed ground. “The idea that I would come to Normandy and not make the short trip here to pay tribute,” he added, his voice trailing off as if to express disbelief.

Maura Sullivan, a former Marine officer who served on the American Battle Monuments Commission under President Barack Obama, said Biden’s visit would “set the example, and do what a president should do.” Now an official with the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Sullivan said that “voters can draw their own conclusions” from that.

Biden’s trip was full of emotional moments, and the president grew heavy-eyed after meeting with World War II veterans. A 21-gun salute cast eerie smoke over 9,388 white marble headstones at the Normandy American Cemetery.

“This has been the most remarkable trip that I’ve ever made,” Biden said on Saturday night, his last in Paris before returning to the U.S.

At Aisne-Marne, Biden said the trip “surprised me how much it awakened my sense of why it’s so valuable to have these alliances. Why it’s so critical. That’s the way you stop wars, not start wars.”

His remarks over the last few days were also freighted with political overtones.

On Thursday at Normandy anniversary ceremonies, Biden said D-Day served a reminder that alliances make the United States stronger, calling it “a lesson that I pray we Americans never forget.” He also highlighted how the war effort drew on immigrants, women and people of color who were too often overlooked by history.

Then on Friday, he went to Pointe du Hoc, a spot on the coast where Army Rangers scaled cliffs to overcome Nazi defenses on D-Day that was also the site in 1984 of one of President Ronald Reagan’s most memorable speeches about the struggles between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

By following in an iconic Republican’s footsteps, Biden honed his appeal to traditional conservatives who are often frustrated by Trump’s isolationist vision. Biden issued a call for Americans to protect democracy like the Rangers who scaled the cliffs, a message that synced with campaign rhetoric that paints his election opponent as an existential threat to U.S. values.

While Biden was in France, his campaign announced that it had hired the onetime chief of staff to former Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger to lead outreach to GOP voters. Kinzinger clashed with Trump’s foreign policy and efforts to overturn the last presidential election.

At Pointe du Hoc, Biden said the Army Rangers “fought to vanquish a hateful ideology in the ’30s and ’40s. Does anyone doubt they wouldn’t move heaven and earth to vanquish hateful ideologies of today?”

Trump has argued that the U.S. needs to devote more attention to its own problems and less to foreign alliances and entanglements. He has also routinely played down the importance of American partnerships, suggesting the U.S. could abandon its treaty commitments to defend European allies if they don’t pay enough for their own defenses.

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who wrote a book about Pointe du Hoc and Reagan’s speech, said Biden “had big shoes to step into” by choosing the same location.

Biden’s speech “didn’t equal Reagan’s in grandeur, nor could it,” Brinkley said. Still, he said Biden “said the right words about why democracy matters.”

Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic strategist, said it could help Biden politically “to stand where Reagan stood.”

He noted that Biden is struggling with younger voters but appears to be gaining strength among older ones who may be more receptive to reminders of Reagan’s speech four decades ago.

“He needs a lot of Reagan Republicans to offset his challenges with younger voters,” he said.

Biden’s trip was also punctuated by the pomp of a state visit in Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron arranged a ceremony at the Arc du Triomphe, where four fighter jets flew overhead, and hosted a banquet at the Elysee presidential palace.

“United we stand, divided we fall,” Macron said in toasting Biden. “Allied we are, and allied we will stay.”

Overall, Biden’s visit had a slower pace than other foreign trips. The 81-year-old president had no public events on his first day in Paris after arriving on an overnight flight, and didn’t hold a press conference with reporters, as is customary. John Kirby, a national security spokesman, said that was necessary to prepare “in advance of the weighty engagements” during subsequent days.

“There’s a lot on the calendar,” he said.

Still, it was a contrast to Macron’s tendency to offer prestigious guests an intense schedule with a mix of official meetings, business talks, cultural events and private dinners at fancy restaurants.

When the 46-year-old French leader hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, the two-day agenda was crammed with activities including a trip to the Pyrenees Mountains near the border with Spain where Macron spent time as a child.

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Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

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Biden honors US war dead with a cemetery visit ending a French trip that served as a rebuke to Trump