NEW YORK — President Joe Biden on Monday told a packed Broadway theater full of big-name stars hosting a fundraiser in his honor that he was running for reelection because Donald Trump was determined to destroy the nation.
Democracy is at stake, he told the audience at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. Hate groups have been emboldened, he said. Books are being banned. Children go to school fearing shootings.
“Let there be no question, Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy,” he said, referring to the former president’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” “And I will always defend, protect and fight for our democracy.”
Biden also accused Trump and his allies of bowing down to authoritarians: “I will not side with dictators like Putin. Maybe Trump and his MAGA friends can bow down but I won’t.”
It was the among the president’s strongest rebukes of the Republican front-runner and former president, who is facing criminal charges for his role in the effort to overturn the 2020 election. And it comes as the political pressure is ramping up from Republicans in the House who have opened an impeachment inquiry into Biden in an effort to tie him to his son Hunter’s business dealings and distract from Trump’s legal peril.
Biden said he wanted to send the “strongest and most powerful message possible, that political violence in America is never never never acceptable.”
Biden, who is set to address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, arrived in New York on Sunday evening so he could squeeze in the fundraisers as the end of the quarter for federal election reporting nears.
A Times Square billboard not far from the concert advertised “Broadway for Biden.” Sara Bareilles, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt were among those appearing on behalf of the president.
By turning to the New York theater community — overseen and contracted by the Actors’ Equity Association, whose some 51,000 American actors and stage managers remain on the job — Biden avoided Hollywood and the strike by members of the Writers Guild of America and actors from SAG-AFTRA.
Both Biden and first lady Jill Biden attended the event, with tickets ranging from $250 to $7,500. Biden also took part in a private fundraiser in Manhattan hosted by the Black Economic Alliance.
Biden walked on stage to the showstopper “All That Jazz,” and spoke about how when his sons were little they’d head up to New York twice a year to catch a show. Once, they brought their boys to see Bette Midler, whose act wasn’t exactly known to be family-friendly, and she singled them out.
“Who would bring two kids to a show like this?” she asked, according to Biden. It prompted a round of raucous laughter.
“My boys used that as a badge of courage,” he said. “Bette Midler picked us out of a crowd. … Families all over the world have memories like that to cherish.”
Biden was introduced by Jeffrey Seller, a theater producer best known for his work on “Rent,” “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.”
“President Biden, I am here to pledge to you that we in this theater — all 1,500 strong of us — are your warriors, are your troops in ensuring that we maintain, affirm and nurture the soul of our democracy and the soul of our nation,” Seller said, echoing a phrase Biden often invokes when he’s talking about why he’s running for reelection.
The event was full of performances by Tony-winning stars, but only the remarks by the president and Seller were open to the press.
Southern California, the home of extraordinary wealth and the engine of the film and television industry, has historically served as an ATM for the Democratic Party.
Since at least Bill Clinton, Democratic presidents have cultivated intimate ties with powerful figures in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Biden himself raised roughly $1 million during an early 2020 campaign fundraiser at the home of Michael Smith and James Costos, a former HBO executive. That event was attended by former DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, now a Biden campaign co-chair.
The ongoing actors and writers strike has ground that to a halt, at least for now. Writers have been on strike for 4 1/2 months over issues including pay, job security and regulating the use of artificial intelligence. SAG-AFTRA members went on strike on July 14.
Biden is the most vocally pro-union president in decades, and is mindful of staying on the right side of labor, a key constituency. As long as the strike goes on, he has been advised by Katzenberg to steer clear, according to three people with direct knowledge of the guidance who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal planning details.
Biden has kept a tepid fundraising schedule since announcing his reelection campaign in April, worrying some donors who believe the president needs to start stockpiling massive amounts of cash now for the brutal campaign that lies ahead. Still, campaign officials say they are raising plenty of money during big-dollar events –- just not anywhere near Los Angeles.
“Joe Biden is the most pro-labor president that I can recall in my lifetime. He is true to his word on that,” said Chris Korge, who serves a dual role as finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the Biden Victory Fund, the chief fundraising committee for Biden’s reelection. “The president will decide when is the right time to go, but it’s not impacting our fundraising ability at all.”
Some Biden allies worry that time is wasting. And they note Biden could still raise money from southern California donors who are not affiliated with the entertainment industry.
Even that could prove perilous. The potential of a picket line forming outside the gates of a multimillion-dollar home would present made-for-TV fodder that would only serve to underscore the reality that even a pro-labor president must raise cash from wealthy tycoons who have far more in common with Hollywood studio heads than rank-and-file union members.
Biden and the DNC raised more than $72 million for his reelection in the 10 weeks after he announced his 2024 candidacy, his campaign announced in July. It was a strong but not record performance by an incumbent.
Trump’s campaign raised more than $35 million for his White House bid during the second fundraising quarter, nearly double what he raised during the first three months of the year. Trump remains the GOP front-runner despite facing indictments in four different jurisdictions.
Biden will turn his attention to diplomacy on Tuesday and Wednesday at the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. After his Wednesday diplomatic engagements, Biden will squeeze in two more fundraisers in New York before returning to Washington.