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Biden attempts to draw contrast with Trump in France

PARIS — Not once in his trip to France did President Joe Biden speak Donald Trump’s name.  

Standing near the gravesites of American soldiers killed in two world wars, Biden shied from overt references to his Republican rival or the presidential campaign back home.

Yet in some sense, Trump figured in virtually all of Biden’s remarks during his five-day visit. At every turn, Biden implicitly denounced Trump’s quasi-isolationist foreign policy outlook as the antithesis of what’s needed to fend off autocratic leaders that threaten democratic states.

The trip culminated in Biden’s visit Sunday to a military cemetery that is rich in political symbolism. Located about an hour from Paris, Aisne-Marne American cemetery is the burial ground for 2,289 Americans who died in World War I.

Trump avoided the cemetery when he was in France six years ago to mark the 100th anniversary of the war. His aides have cited weather conditions as the reason he didn’t show.

But John Kelly, who was Trump’s longest-serving White House chief of staff, has since given a statement confirming a report in The Atlantic in 2020 that Trump called the war dead “losers” and didn’t want to visit the burial ground.

(Trump has denied making the comment. Chris LaCivita, Trump’s 2024 co-campaign manager called the report “fake and thoroughly debunked,” while adding, “The fact remains that severe weather conditions on that day prevented the safe transportation of the president and guests to the cemetery, and he participated in a ceremony at the Suresnes American Cemetery the next day.”)

The American Battle Monuments Commission runs 12 different cemeteries in France, according to its website. Why did Biden choose the very one that Trump skipped?

He told reporters that it was because of the extraordinary number of Marines who died there in World War I. Yet there’s also a political windfall that Biden’s campaign has been looking to reap: his appearance can’t help but draw attention to Trump’s absence in 2018.

“The idea that I come to Normandy and not make the short trip here to pay tribute —” Biden’s voice trailed off before finishing the thought.

President Joe Biden speaks during his visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery
President Joe Biden speaks Sunday during his visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.Saul Loeb / AFP – Getty Images

A theme running through the trip was Biden’s celebration of America’s network of alliances. They helped the U.S. prevail in past wars and are needed today to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from defeating Ukraine and threatening the rest of Europe, he said.

At the cemetery, Biden said that “best way to avoid these kinds of battles in the future is to stay strong with our allies. Do not break. Do not break.”

Biden is betting that Americans prefer his foreign position to a more nationalist vision that Trump and many of his supporters have embraced.

As commander in chief, Trump faulted longtime allies for not ponying up enough money for defense and leaving it to the U.S. to provide a security umbrella.

He considered pulling out of the NATO alliance when he was in office, former aides said. And he doubled down on his position in February when he said he’d let Russia “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies that don’t spend enough money on their own defense.

The election may prove a referendum on which of the two approaches voters prefer. In his remarks to the press on Sunday, Biden seemed to take issue with the notion that Americans have become “semi-isolationist.” 

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk with Maj. Gen. Robert B. Sofge Jr. as they attend a wreath-laying ceremony
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk with Maj. Gen. Robert B. Sofge Jr. as they attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American World War One Cemetery in Belleau, France, Sunday, June 9, 2024.Evan Vucci / AP

“That’s not who we are,” he said. “It’s not who America is.”

The trip was largely a smooth one for the president. One of the few glitches wasn’t of his making, a U.S. official said. There was about a 45-minute delay before the start of the ceremony on Thursday in Normandy marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

Veterans in their 90s and 100s sat shivering in their wheelchairs in the afternoon chill as they waited for the event to begin. A U.S. official told NBC News the proceedings were delayed because French President Emmanuel Macron was late in arriving.

At a time when millions of voters believe that Biden, 81, is too old for the job, the trip was also fortuitous for him in that produced plenty of pictures showing him alongside WWII veterans old enough to be his father.

While exchanging toasts with Biden at the Elysee Palace on Saturday, Macron pointed to 100-year-old veteran Harold Terens, who was seated at a table with his fiancee, 96-year-old Jeanne Swerlin.

“They are with us today and they are just making their marriage vows,” Macron said, through a translator. “So, let us congratulate the young newlyweds.”

On Wednesday, Biden will leave for Europe again for the Group of Seven (G7) summit meeting in southern Italy.

Something else may be weighing on his mind, though. His son Hunter faces felony gun charges and his trial in Wilmington, Del. resumes on Monday. The prosecution has rested its case, and the president may soon learn whether his lone surviving son is found innocent or guilty.

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