Why Biden finally decided to speak out on college protest violence

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On Wednesday morning, after the last protesters had been cleared from Columbia’s Hamilton Hall, President Joe Biden told a group of senior aides that he wanted them to begin writing up initial remarks about the wave of campus demonstrations roiling the country.

He wanted to have something ready to go, just in case it was needed. By Wednesday evening, Biden was working through the text to put his own touches on it. But he was unsure if a speech would need to be delivered, according to two administration officials familiar with his process who were granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Then pandemonium broke out at UCLA.

By Thursday morning, Biden, having seen the violent clashes from that campus on cable news, made his decision: He would give the address.

In choosing to go before the cameras, the White House tacitly conceded that some of the pro-Palestinian campus protests risked harming the president’s effort to project himself as a calming force for the nation. Biden had been slow to address the campus conflicts in a robust way; events effectively made the decision for him.

“There’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos,” Biden would say on Thursday. “Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduation — none of this is a peaceful protest.”

The White House is now taking more steps to show that it is attentive to the fallout emanating from the college protests. Even prior to the hastily scheduled speech, the president had planned to deliver a high-profile address at the Holocaust memorial ceremony where he would directly tackle the growth of antisemitic rhetoric and activity on campuses.

But as the scene in Los Angeles unfolded before dawn Thursday, the sentiment in the West Wing — as described by two White House officials not authorized to discuss private conversations — was that Tuesday was too far away. The president personally felt that the crimes committed on that and other campuses needed to be called out, in hopes of deterring more violence. And even longtime allies were expressing concern that he was being overtaken by events.

“It’s totally an issue to be concerned about. It’s not helpful to the president,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal advocacy group. “All of this is unfortunately turning an extremely important and sensitive issue into a political football. It plays into the hands of the Republicans and of Donald Trump.”

On Wednesday, Biden’s interagency task force on antisemitism gathered to discuss how to more quickly advance some of its policy items, according to a person familiar with the discussion. The group included Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden, Attorney General Merrick Garland, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

The officials expressed urgency about implementing federal policies to counter antisemitism, such as protecting students on campuses.

In addition, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, the nation’s most prominent Jewish official and the administration’s most high-profile official on combating antisemitism, held private calls last week with Jewish community leaders at Columbia University.

The central question inside the White House has been just how involved the president himself should be in responding to the protests. Until Thursday, Biden had said relatively little. The White House had issued statements earlier in the week that condemned antisemitism as well as past comments of a student protest leader and the seizure and vandalism of a Columbia University building. But they were released under the names of aides, not the president.

The White House treated the subject gingerly, reflecting the divided politics in the Democratic Party about the Gaza war. Allies argued that the protesters were a small subset of voters that ultimately would not harm the president during the campaign.

According to the people familiar with his thinking, Biden’s decision to get more directly involved came in response to protesters occupying buildings and vandalizing them. He felt the acts were extreme enough that they needed to be called out in hopes of deterring similar episodes. Privately and then publicly, the president said that the protesters had a right to peacefully make their point but not threaten violence or commit actual crimes.

Among Biden advisers, there is hope that the protests will eventually die down, not because of the president’s speech but because of external factors. Schools are soon closing for the summer. And there is hope that a cease-fire deal can soon be struck between Israel and Hamas.

But neither development is guaranteed to quiet the unrest anytime soon.

Biden is slated to give a commencement speech this month at Morehouse College, a historically Black college where students already asked the school to disinvite the president out of anger over the war. And there is great worry about the protests outside the Democratic National Convention this August in Chicago, the same city where violence marred the 1968 DNC and helped elect Richard Nixon.

And while U.S. officials expressed some optimism, previous rounds of negotiations have also looked promising before collapsing prior to the finish line.

Complicating matters, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signaled that his military will at some point conduct an assault on Rafah, a southern Gaza city believed to house Hamas leaders but also home to over a million people. Despite urging from the White House to reconsider that plan, Netanyahu has indicated that the invasion will happen regardless of whether a hostage deal is reached.