PARK CITY — Former Vice President Joe Biden urged an enthusiastic crowd gathered in a lavish mountaintop home for a campaign fundraiser to “take back the country” from an administration that embraces “thugs,” but never mentioned the impeachment inquiry just launched against President Donald Trump.
“If you give oxygen to prejudice, it comes out from under the rocks.”
On a rainy Saturday morning, the frontrunner in the still-crowded race for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential race, told the group “there’s more at stake in this election than in any you have ever voted in, for real. It’s not because I’m running. It’s the nature of where we are and what this president has done,”
Just as he did when announcing last April that he was running for president, Biden focused on Trump’s saying there were “very fine people on both sides” at a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, calling his statement an attempt to equate “those peddling hate and those opposing it.”
Biden — who said he and President Barack Obama had decided after the 2016 election not to criticize Trump “right off the bat” and to “give him a shot” — said Charlottesville “made me realize the history of this nation is not a fairy tale. ... If you give oxygen to prejudice, it comes out from under the rocks.”
He said that isn’t “the nation we are, putting kids in cages and embracing (Russian leader) Vladimir Putin in front of the world stage, criticizing the American intelligence community, undermining our securing around the world and embracing people who are just flat thugs internationally.”
Those actions by the president, Biden said, have “done great, great, great damage to our standing in the world and quite frankly, to our security.”
Still, he ended the nearly 20-minute speech by saying he is more optimistic than ever that America can get back on track.
“I refuse to postpone any longer the opportunities we have,” Biden said, borrowing a line from President John F. Kennedy’s speech about going to the moon. “So let’s get the hell up, remember who we are, take back the country and make America the envy of the world again.”
About 200 people attended the fundraiser that cost at least $250 to attend, held at the home of Amy and Barry Bake in the private Park City-area Glenwild development. The couple, both longtime media executives, also hosted events for 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Biden made no public appearances during a quick stop in Utah that lasted only a few hours, although his campaign has said he intends to return in the coming months. He started the day in Las Vegas Saturday and was headed to another fundraiser in Denver before returning home to Delaware.
His visit comes at the end of a week when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, launched an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials into investigating, apparently without any evidence, whether Biden, as vice president, tried to help his son, Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian gas company.
Ukraine’s top anti-corruption official, Nazar Kholodnitskiy, said Friday the Bidens are not being investigated, the Associated Press reported. Joe Biden has called the allegations by Trump “a malicious conspiracy theory that has been universally debunked by every independent outlet that has looked at it.”
Trump and the Republican National Committee reportedly are planning on spending $10 million on a new television ad targeting Biden’s work against corruption in the Ukraine, tying it to his son’s activities, and accusing Democrats of trying to “steal the 2020 election” for president.
Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield responded to the ad Friday by saying that Trump “is trying to pick his opponent, and he will fail. Donald Trump is terrified of Joe Biden because the vice president would beat him like a drum.”
As Biden visited Utah, Samantha Zager, regional spokeswoman for the Trump Victory campaign, issued a statement calling for Biden to answer questions about his son and their dealings with Ukraine.
“Americans deserve to see the transcripts of Joe Biden’s calls from his time as vice president,” Zager said.
One Republican attending Biden’s fundraiser Saturday said the former vice president stuck to “safe” topics to avoid bringing up the divisive issue of impeachment or stoking discussion about the allegations Trump and his supporters are making against the Bidens.
Another said Biden made a smart choice by emphasizing what he sees as the president’s larger failings and ending on a positive note.
“This was not a crowd that was holding pitchforks and torches. They were not talking about the ‘I’ word, impeachment,” said retired University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless, who still teaches lifelong learning courses. “I think he very carefully stayed away from it.”
Chambless pointed out the only reference Biden made to his son, Hunter, was “in a family context,” while telling a story about how much had changed in the decades between the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his swearing-in as vice president to Obama, the nation’s first black president.
After his speech, Biden “sure hugged a lot of people who wanted to be hugged. People came up to him and shook his hand. (There were) a lot of selfies,” Chambless said. “He stayed and showed that human, likable, common person that he is.”
Scott Howell, a former state Senate minority leader and a host of Saturday’s fundraiser, said Biden briefly touched on the topics of impeachment and the impact on his family of Trump’s allegations during a private conversation before the speech.
“He just said right now he was concentrating on the important things,” Howell said, and that he “never thought politics would get to this.”
Howell said there were “a lot of Republicans ... what I call mainstream Republicans,” at the fundraiser, including his wife, a Biden supporter.
Impeachment talk, he said, wasn’t going to fire up the crowd that filled the game room framed by floor-to-ceiling windows and a massive stone fireplace where Biden spoke, but might have an impact on “the far, far left” of the party.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said Biden’s speech was well-received.
“It’s the message that all Democrats in reality are bringing, that obviously this is a time for change. That change is not only necessary, but vital to the vibrancy of our democracy,” Merchant said. “It’s a message that Utahns need and want to hear broadly.”
Utah’s 2020 presidential primary election is set for Super Tuesday, on March 3. Several Democratic presidential candidates have already visited the state, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke may be coming in October.
Biden gave a speech at the University of Utah last December, before he announced his run for president. He stayed mum about his political intentions during that appearance and in a private meeting earlier the same day with Rep. Ben McAdams, who had just been elected the state’s only Democratic member of Congress.
In 2017, Biden was a guest at now-Sen. Mitt Romney’s annual political retreat in Deer Valley. In additional to talking about his work as vice president on a “moonshot” attempt to find a cure for cancer that involved the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the U., Biden also encouraged Romney, a Republican, to run for Senate.
McAdams, one of only a handful of House Democrats who is not on board with the impeachment inquiry, did not attend the fundraiser. Nor did Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who said she was staying out of the presidential race until a Democratic nominee is selected.
An August poll for UtahPolicy.com showed Biden statistically tied with Trump among Utah voters, with the support of 35% compared to 36% for the president, although several other Democrats, including Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, had a stronger showing.
In 2016, Sanders was the big winner in Utah’s presidential preference caucus vote over Clinton, the eventual Democratic nominee. Trump, who finished third place in the state’s Republican caucus vote, won Utah in the general election with 45.5% of the vote.
Utah, considered one of the most Republican states in the nation, has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.