Joe Biden was on an Amtrak train on Sept. 11, 2001, when his wife called to tell him about the attacks on the World Trade Center, and when he reached Washington, he grew frustrated that he couldn’t get to the Senate floor for a speech because the U.S. Capitol had been evacuated.
Biden nonetheless found ways to make his point – that institutions like Congress and NATO are bulwarks against such assaults on democracy. “I refuse to be part of letting these bastards win,” Biden said that day.
Hundreds of miles to the north – and four miles from Ground Zero – Donald Trump was sitting in a tower bearing his name, watching CNBC and preparing to call a local TV station to offer his own commentary, including a lament that the stock market was forced to close.
Nineteen years later, Trump and Biden are their respective party’s presidential candidates, and both will visit Shanksville, Pa., on Friday, the place where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field. It will bring the two candidates to the same place on the same day, a rare occurrence, and it comes less than three weeks before they face off in their first debate.
The Sept. 11 attacks targeted the cities that molded the two men, Washington and New York, reinforcing the clashing worldviews they now offer the American electorate: Biden’s embrace of U.S. institutions and global alliances, Trump’s distrust of foreigners and insistence that America must go it alone.
“Their responses fundamentally demonstrated the one perpetual, personal and political divide between them,” said Aaron David Miller, who served in the State Department under both Democrats and Republicans, citing this contrast between collective action and unilateralism.
That divide is playing out amid another great national trauma, one Americans are handling in a very different way. If 9/11 prompted a rare moment of national unity – with Republican and Democratic leaders embracing on the Senate floor – the current pandemic is yielding bitter partisan debates over everything from death rates to who’s at fault.
The events, of course, are very different, one a massacre by terrorists bent on humiliating America and the other a global pandemic that recognizes neither borders nor ideology. Nearly 3,000 people died in the 2001 attacks, and close to 190,000 Americans have lost their lives so far to covid-19, the disease caused by the novel virus.
On Friday, Biden and Trump will appear on a field that memorializes the bravery and toughness of ordinary Americans, epitomized by the cry of “Let’s roll” as passengers attempted to retake the cockpit. Trump is scheduled to attend a 9:45 a.m. ceremony, which is closed to the public but will be streamed online. Biden’s campaign announced Thursday evening that he would be in New York on Friday morning for a ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, before traveling to Shanksville in the afternoon.
But if that moment in 2001 was about unity, it contained the seeds of this era of division, at least when it comes to the two men facing off on Nov. 3.
Biden and Trump have only hardened their divergent approaches in the years since. For Trump, the attacks have fueled his skepticism of foreigners, led to Islamaphobic reactions, and cemented a distrust of traditional alliances, from NATO to the World Health Organization. For Biden, it enhanced his faith in the importance of the Western alliance and triggered calls for bipartisan unity that he still voices.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Biden’s daughter, then a college student, called him, begging him to leave Washington. The senator instead marched to the Capitol, reaching the steps before a police officer stopped him and told him a fourth plane – the one that would eventually crash in Shanksville – was heading toward Washington and, some thought, the Capitol.
“Damn it, I want to go in,” Biden recalled telling the officer. Instead, the senator, who then chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was forced to angrily sit on a park bench and make calls on his cellphone.
Biden pushed back against pleas that members of Congress relocate to a bunker in West Virginia. He spoke by phone with President George W. Bush that evening, urging him to come back to Washington.
“Everyone was bemoaning life was changed forever – that was not Biden’s attitude,” said Brian McKeon, a longtime aide who was with him that day. “This was not going to inalterably change the American way of life. He’s talking NATO and alliances – that was part of his instinct. America shouldn’t ever undertake a significant action like responding to al-Qaida attack on our own.”
That night, Biden and his brother, Jimmy, hitched a ride home with Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., who was heading to Philadelphia. Unlike most lawmakers, Biden still returned to his home every night in Delaware.
Biden watched on television as congressional leaders – the ones he urged earlier in the day to come together in a visible way and hold their proceedings as scheduled – sang “God Bless America” outside the Capitol.
“I sort of felt bad that I was sitting in Wilmington, watching them sing ‘God Bless America’ on the steps of the Capitol building and promising to be back in session the next day,” Biden wrote in his 2007 book “Promises to Keep.”
As with Trump, the attacks did not so much transform Biden’s worldview as solidify it.
“What I saw was a Biden who was not particularly spectacular or innovative in his thinking,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign affairs specialist at the Brookings Institution. “But also someone very solid in how he wanted to proceed, knowing that overthrowing governments is a messy proposition and the instability it would create.”
The most volatile foreign policy question after 9/11 was whether to launch a war in Iraq, and both Biden and Trump appear to have exaggerated their initial opposition to it in the years since. Still, Biden was consistently skeptical of Bush’s conduct of the war and warned the challenges could be greater than expected.
“He tends to be pretty wary about the use of force,” O’Hanlon said. “And – maybe the other piece of this 77-year-old man’s worldview – he is old enough to remember Vietnam.” He added: “Biden is a bit slower to the trigger. To be fair, so is Trump. Trump is a bellicose personality, but he doesn’t actually seem to like war.”
On the day of the attack, Trump was watching CNBC as it prepared to interview former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, when the network cut away to a scene of the first tower on fire. One of his first reactions when the planes hit was to call a television show to offer commentary.
He later visited Ground Zero, and he cited the attacks to challenge immigration policies, religious tolerance and the need for the very global alliances that Biden has spent years embracing.
Trump claimed that he saw the plane strike the second tower, and that from his window he observed the tragedy of people jumping from the buildings – claims that fact-checkers have questioned. Trump also later said he watched as thousands of Muslims cheered in Jersey City, N.J., when the building came down, an assertion that has been debunked.
What is clear about Trump’s reaction is that he called into WWOR in New Jersey to offer his commentary.
“I was so disappointed when they closed the stock exchange, but of course at some point you had no choice,” Trump said. “You want to just say the hell with it, you’re going forward, nothing is going to change. But the fact is something has changed, very dramatically.”
He also remarked that a building he owned had been the second-tallest in Manhattan but, now that the Trade Towers had fallen, would become the tallest. (That was inaccurate – a different building actually held that title).
Trump was asked what he would do if he were president.
“Well, I’d be taking a very, very tough line,” Trump said. “This just can’t be tolerated. And it’s got to be very, very stern. This was . . . probably worse than Pearl Harbor.”
But while the terrorists struck just miles from where he lived, Trump has rarely spoken with passion or emotion about Sept. 11, 2001. An exception came during a 2016 Republican primary debate when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, criticized him for “New York values.”
“When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely, than New York,” Trump said. “You had two 110-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. And we saw more death, and even the smell of death, nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan.”
But more often, Trump is dispassionate.
“From various comments he made that day and the period after, there is nothing that really indicates this is fundamentally changing his outlook on the world,” said Thomas Wright, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has written about Trump’s foreign policy.
The formative period in Trump’s foreign policy occurred in the 1980s, and in many ways stemmed from his businessman outlook. In that decade, he started publishing ads and making statements saying, for example, that the United States had become a laughingstock on trade.
The 9/11 attacks only seemed to play into his philosophy that the United States must go it alone and look after its own interests.
“He has this sort of isolationist and militaristic view of whacking terrorist organizations from afar and then retreating behind this fortress,” Wright said. “That’s how it seems he think of it.”