By CHRIS MEGERIAN and MARC LEVY
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) — President Joe Biden on Tuesday forcefully defended the FBI as the agency and its employees have come under withering criticism and threats of violence since executing a search warrant at former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence earlier this month.
“It’s sickening to see the new attacks on the FBI, threatening the life of law enforcement and their families, for simply carrying out the law and doing their job,” Biden said before a crowd of more than 500 at Wilkes University. “I’m opposed to defunding the police; I’m also opposed to defunding the FBI.”
Biden also used his remarks Tuesday to promote his administration’s crime-prevention efforts and to continue to pressure Congress to revive a long-expired federal ban on assault-style weapons. Democrats and Republicans worked together in a rare effort to pass gun safety legislation earlier this year after massacres in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. They were the first significant firearm restrictions approved by Congress in nearly three decades, but Biden has repeatedly said more needs to be done.
“We beat the NRA. We took them on and beat the NRA straight up. You have no idea how intimidating they are to elected officials,” an animated Biden said. “We’re not stopping here. I’m determined to ban assault weapons in this country! Determined. I did it once before. And I’ll do it again.”
As a U.S. senator, Biden played a leading role in temporarily banning assault-style weapons, including firearms similar to the AR-15 that have exploded in popularity in recent years, and he wants to put the law back into place. Biden argued that there was no rationale for such weapons “outside of a war zone” and noted that parents of the young victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde had to supply DNA because the weapon used in the massacre rendered the bodies unidentifiable.
“DNA, to say that’s my baby!” Biden said. “What the hell is the matter with us?”
Tuesday’s speech marked Biden’s first of three trips to Pennsylvania in the coming week, underscoring the state’s role as a key political battleground. Trump is hosting his own rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday.
Democrats are trying to blunt Republican efforts to use concern about crime to their advantage in the midterms. It’s a particularly fraught issue in Pennsylvania, a key swing state where a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s office are up for grabs.
The Republican candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, accuses Democrat Josh Shapiro of being soft on crime as the state’s twice-elected attorney general, saying at one recent event that crime has gone up on his opponent’s watch and that Shapiro “stands aside” as homicides rise across Pennsylvania.
Homicides have been increasing in Pennsylvania, but overall crime seems to have fallen over the last year, according to state statistics.
As attorney general since 2017, Shapiro has toured the state discussing the need to crack down on gun trafficking and ghost guns, and to recruit more police officers. Last December, he said that state agents and Philadelphia police officers working together had reduced the number of shootings in areas that were confronting gun violence related to drug trafficking.
“The real heroes here are the people who put on the uniform every single day,” said Shapiro, who spoke shortly before Biden’s remarks at Wilkes University. “We know that policing is a noble profession, and we know that we need to stand with law enforcement.”
In the U.S. Senate race, heart surgeon turned television celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee, has tried to portray the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, as extreme and reckless on crime policy.
Fetterman has endorsed recommendations that more geriatric and rehabilitated prisoners can be released from state prisons without harming public safety. Oz and Republicans have distorted that into the claim that Fetterman wants to release “dangerous criminals” from prisons or that he’s in favor of “emptying prisons.”
Fetterman was not in Wilkes-Barre with Biden on Tuesday, but he’s expected to march in Pittsburgh’s Labor Day parade when the president visits Sept. 5. Biden also will be in Pennsylvania on Thursday for a prime-time speech that the White House said will address “the continued battle for the soul of the nation” and defending democracy.
It’s unclear whether crime will end up as a pivotal issue in November.
Only 11% of U.S. adults named crime or violence as one of the top five issues they consider most important for the government to work on in the next year, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted in June. That’s unchanged since December, and it’s well below the percentage naming many of the other top issues for Americans.
Biden has tried to balance his approach to crime by acknowledging voters’ fears and praising law enforcement, but also urging more accountability for officers. The White House has also repeatedly promoted the additional funding for local police that was tucked into its sweeping coronavirus relief package in the early months of Biden’s presidency.
He’s rejected the activist slogan “defund the police,” which Republicans have used as a cudgel against Democrats in general, by calling for more money for cops.
Biden’s trip to Wilkes-Barre was originally scheduled for July 21 but was cancelled when the president contracted COVID-19 and went into isolation while he was contagious.
Biden has laid out a $37 billion plan for addressing crime and boosting law enforcement resources. He wants Congress to spend $13 billion to help communities hire and train 100,000 police officers over five years. Another $3 billion would go to clearing court backlogs and resolving cases involving murders and guns, and $5 billion more would go to support programs that could help stop violence before it occurs.
In addition, Biden is looking for $15 billion to provide grants to initiatives for preventing violent crime or creating public health responses to nonviolent incidents.