President Joe Biden’s attempts to talk up democracy in Europe this week are facing headwinds from back home, where revelations about the Justice Department’s attempts to obtain Democrats’ data have raised new concerns about the state of American politics.
Throughout his time here, Biden is making the case to American allies that democracy must prevail over a rising tide of authoritarianism. His argument has been that democracies are better at providing for their people and the world.
He has openly acknowledged that democracies are often messy. But he said this week that the world had reached an “inflection point” where the competition between democracy and autocracy is coming to a head.
Yet as challenges back home bubble up, he is finding it harder to point to his own country’s own recent history, including the lingering remnants of President Donald Trump’s tenure.
As he was preparing to attend his first G7 meeting on Friday, reports emerged from Washington that prosecutors in Trump’s Justice Department, beginning in February 2018, subpoenaed Apple for data from the accounts of House Intelligence Committee Democrats, their staff and family members, including at least one minor, as part of a leak investigation. The subpoena included a gag order, which was renewed three times before it expired this year and Apple notified the customers in May.
The development immediately drew accusations the Trump administration was abusing its power in a decidedly undemocratic fashion. The attempts by the Justice Department to secretly gather information about Trump’s political rivals came after revelations it took similar steps to obtain information from reporters at outlets Trump frequently denigrated.
It was the kind of step American officials often decry in the authoritarian regimes Biden is hoping to minimize in his European tour this week. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s set to meet with the President next week and is a fan of using whataboutism in order to deflect criticism of his regime, no doubt read the reports with interest.
A more conventional presence
With such reports and the hangover of the last four years still fresh in world leaders’ minds, Trump – whose name has gone unspoken here – has nonetheless provided the subtext for Biden’s attempts at restoring American alliances strained during his predecessor’s term. European leaders remain skeptical at the durability of Biden’s message of friendship, highly aware that another president – perhaps even Trump himself – could reverse it all in January 2025.
Still, they are relieved and eager to work with Biden for now.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the summit’s host, after meeting Biden on Thursday. That Biden once deemed Johnson the “physical and emotional clone” of Trump went unsaid.
Nearly as soon as he arrived in Britain this week, Biden laid out the sky-high stakes he sees for his debut trip abroad.
“We have to discredit those who believe that the age of democracy is over, as some of our fellow nations believe. We have to expose as false the narrative that decrees of dictators can match the speed and scale of the 21st (century) challenges,” he told troops at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, home to an American refueling wing whose history stretches back to World War II.
“You know, and I know, they’re wrong,” Biden said. “But it doesn’t mean we don’t have to work harder than ever to prove that democracy can still deliver for our people.”
It’s a message he plans to carry from the Group of 7 summit on the Cornish coast this week to a NATO meeting in Brussels next week and onward to his highly anticipated summit with Putin in Geneva next Wednesday.
“Top to bottom, the driving, animating purpose of this G7 summit is to show that democracies can deliver against the biggest challenges we are facing in the world,” a senior administration official said as the G7 was getting underway.
Biden was hoping to lend credence to the notion when he unveiled a major new pledge of 500 million vaccine doses that will be donated to lower-income nations, proof in his mind that democracies like America can better help the world than countries like China or Russia.
Unveiling the pledge, he made clear the doses wouldn’t come with the same baggage that those offered by Beijing or Moscow.
“Let me be clear: Just as with the 80 million doses we previously announced, the United States is providing these half billion doses with no strings attached. Let me say it again: with no strings attached,” he said. “Our vaccine donations don’t include pressure for favors or potential concessions. We’re doing this to save lives, to end this pandemic. That’s it. Period.”
Biden made his announcement in an attempt to goad other G7 nations into making their own pledges to share vaccines. Britain pitched in another 100 million, and the group as a whole pledged 1 billion doses starting this summer.
But the pledges might not be as large as some observers would have hoped and reveal the dual-track recovery from the pandemic across the world – and even in this gathering of the world’s richest democracies, as some members of the G7, including Canada, are still struggling to vaccinate their own populations.
Complications back home
Biden has also come to this summit after a breakdown in negotiations over an infrastructure package that he has said is needed to keep up with China.
Saturday’s working session at the G7, Biden administration officials said, with the aim of positioning the US and its allies to better compete with China in the aftermath of the pandemic. Part of that competition will include the “Build Back Better for the World” initiative, what a senior administration official described as a “bold, new global infrastructure initiative with our G7 partners that will be values-driven, transparent and sustainable.”
The infrastructure initiative will address a $40 trillion gap in lower and middle-income countries, the official said, and is aimed at competing with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The G7 will announce “a positive alternative that reflects our values, our standards, and our way of doing business,” a second senior official said.
Officials described the action not as a confrontation, but as the presentation of an alternative path.
“This is not about making countries choose between us and China, this is about offering an affirmative, alternative vision and approach that they would want to choose,” the first administration official said.
But Biden has found domestic agreements on infrastructure harder to pull off.
Just as he was departing the United States this week, talks with Republicans over infrastructure collapsed, a blow to his pledge to work across the aisle to deliver results for Americans. Biden immediately began new negotiations with a different set of lawmakers, but it was a setback for a president determined to demonstrate both at home and abroad that democratic governments are able to bridge divisions and produce results.
The news of the subpoena to Apple from Trump’s Justice Department and the messy legislative process over his infrastructure complicates Biden’s sales pitch on the benefits of democracy. His communications director, Kate Bedingfield, took to MSNBC to emphasize that this President is different than the last, and called the reports “appalling.”
“President Biden has said many times – on the campaign trail and then again when he swore in his Attorney General, Merrick Garland – the Justice Department should be independent. The Justice Department is not the President’s lawyer, the Justice Department is the people’s lawyer.”
She suggested Biden has a “very different relationship” with the Justice Department than his predecessor, calling out the Trump administration’s “abuse of power” with the department, and adding that the Biden administration’s Justice Department is “run very, very differently.”
But the news from across the Atlantic will no doubt leave Biden’s counterparts in the G7 skeptical of whether Biden’s promises of America once again leading the way for democracy around the world can be fulfilled.