Biden marks Memorial Day with message about freedom as Trump lashes out

From left: President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Major Gen. Trevor Bredenkamp lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Monday, May 27, 2024. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden paid tribute to veterans who died in America’s wars at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, hailing them as “a link in the chain of honor” who deserve recognition for protecting the nation’s democracy.

“Freedom has never been guaranteed,” Biden said in a nine-minute Memorial Day address, moments after placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

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“Every generation has to earn it. Fight for it. Defend it in battle between autocracy and democracy,” he said of the nation’s veterans. “Our democracy is more than just a system of government. It’s the very soul of America.”

His somber message was a sharp contrast to that of former President Donald Trump, his challenger for reelection this year, who posted an angry and incendiary Memorial Day message on his social media site.

“Happy Memorial Day to All, including the Human Scum that is working so hard to destroy our Once Great Country,” the former president wrote on Truth Social.

Trump also wished a happy Memorial Day to Lewis Kaplan, the federal judge who oversaw the trials in which the former president was accused of defamation. Trump called Kaplan “the Radical Left, Trump Hating Federal Judge.” He also called Justice Arthur Engoron, who presided over Trump’s civil fraud case, a “wacko.”

In an earlier, more traditional Memorial Day missive on Truth Social, Trump posted a photograph of himself saluting a wreath while he was president and saying “WE CAN NEVER REPLACE THEM. WE CAN NEVER REPAY THEM. BUT WE CAN ALWAYS REMEMBER.”

But his vitriolic post followed a few minutes later as a reminder of the stark differences between the two rivals for the White House. As has been the case for years, either as president or as a presidential candidate, Trump showed that he would not be held to the norms of behavior that guide the nation’s leaders on a somber national holiday.

By contrast, Biden’s appearance was typical of the kind of message delivered by other presidents in both parties.

He focused mostly on the sacrifices of the past — members of the military who died in Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam and the two world wars.

“Our fallen heroes have brought us closer today,” he said. “We’re not just fortunate heirs of their legacy. We have a responsibility to be the keepers of their mission, that truest memorial of their lives.”

Biden did not mention the wars raging in Europe and the Middle East, where he has pledged not to send U.S. service members to fight alongside allies in Ukraine or Israel. The United States has been drawn into both conflicts nonetheless. The military is helping to provide humanitarian relief in the Gaza Strip and is equipping and supporting fighters in both places against Russia and Hamas.

Biden took a moment during the speech to remember his son Beau, who died of brain cancer after serving in Iraq as a member of the National Guard. The president has long said he believes his son developed his cancer as a result of living next to open “burn pits” in Iraq, where the military would burn waste, producing toxic smoke that nearby soldiers breathed in.

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