WASHINGTON — Ex-President Donald Trump has been indicted over alleged efforts to steal the 2020 election and, in recent weeks, drawn comparisons to dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
But Trump tried to turn around the anti-democratic allegations on Saturday during a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, accusing President Joe Biden and other Democrats of being a threat to the nation.
"Joe Biden is not the defender of American democracy - Joe Biden is the destroyer of American democracy," Trump said.
Biden aides and their supporters balked at the comments, noting that Trump has proposed stocking the civil service with politically motivated loyalists and pledged to use the Justice Department to prosecute Biden and others.
It's not clear whether Trump will embrace his Saturday argument as a new direction for his campaign, but his comments could signal voter rights and other democratic issues will be at the center of the the 2024 election.
'Attempt at distraction'
Ammar Moussa, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, described Trump's democracy argument as "his latest desperate attempt at distraction" from issues like health care: "The American people see right through it and it won’t work."
"Donald Trump’s America in 2025 is one where the government is his personal weapon to lock up his political enemies," Moussa said.
Biden and Trump in recent weeks have escalated some longstanding debates that will loom large in the fall campaign, including arguments over health care.
Biden and his reelection campaign officials last week zeroed in on the former president after he said he's considering "alternatives" to President Barack Obama's signature 2010 health care law, which Trump claims is driving up costs.
“His plan is to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” Biden said at a campaign fundraiser Tuesday night in the Denver area. “His plan is to throw every one of them (who receive insurance) off that legislation. ... Trump gets his way, it’s all gone.”
Trump v. Biden already?
Trump and Biden are acting like it's the general election already, as they clash over health care and other policy issues. But democratic institutions will certainly be a major issue in the 2024 contest.
In Cedar Rapids, Trump again accused Biden of being behind the four criminal cases against him, though federal and state prosecutors brought those charges.
The former president also protested the results of the 2020 election, and attacked litigants who have sued to try and keep him off state ballots because of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot. So far, those lawsuits have failed.
Opponents "think they can do whatever they want - break any law, tell any lie, ruin any life, trash any norm, and get away with anything they want," Trump told supporters in Iowa. Trump continues to argue that the 2020 election was stolen from him, though there is not evidence he defeated Biden in the contest.
'Sleepwalking into dictatorship'?
The campaign clash over democracy comes as a number of political leaders describe Trump as one of the biggest threats to democracy in history, citing his plans to enhance presidential power at the expense of anybody who disputes him.
Former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who voted to impeach Trump over Jan. 6 and later lost a primary to a Trump-backed candidate, told "CBS News Sunday Morning" that too many Republicans are being "co-opted" by the ex-president.
"One of the things that we see happening today is a sort of a sleepwalking into dictatorship in the United States," said Cheney. who is in the midst of a book tour.
Trump said he is fighting Biden and what he called "the anti-Democratic Party."
The election, he said, will be "a political earthquake that will echo around the world!"
'Bad things can happen'
Before he can contest Biden again, Trump must still get past former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican rivals in the convention delegate race that starts with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15.
But while Trump has been criticized by a handful of prominent conservatives, such as Cheney, it's not clear Republican voters agree with their arguments. In a Real Clear Politics average of national polls on the GOP field, Trump is nearly 50 percentage points ahead of his rivals.
While Trump also enjoys a huge lead in polls of the early states – Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina - he did warn backers in Cedar Rapids against complacency.
"Nothing's over," Trump said. "Bad things can happen."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump lashes out at Joe Biden in Iowa as he faces fraud charges