Biden discusses veterans, PACT Act in Salt Lake City visit
Making his first visit to the Beehive State as president, Joe Biden spent time Thursday addressing a group of invited guests at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City. In remarks to the crowd, Biden celebrated the anniversary of the PACT Act’s passage. The bill increased medical benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances.
“We only have one truly sacred obligation: to equip those we send into harm’s way and their families when they return,” Biden said. “Come hell or high water, (we will) compensate these veterans and their families.”
The PACT Act, which Biden called “one of the most significant laws ever signed,” provided $797 billion in health care funding for veterans who face health challenges due to exposure to burn pits, among other harmful materials. Burn pits were a commonly used method of waste disposal by the U.S. military, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, wherein soldiers would burn nonhazardous solid waste.
The president became emotional while discussing the legislation and his son Beau. An officer in the Army, Beau Biden died of cancer in 2015, which the president connected to his son’s exposure to burn pits.
Biden said over 340,000 veterans nationwide have benefitted from the PACT Act including over 2,000 in Utah.
Biden also encouraged veterans who had not signed up to receive benefits from the PACT Act to do so on the Department of Veterans Affairs website and to reach out to local veteran’s service organizations.
Beyond the PACT Act’s anniversary, Biden discussed mental health, homelessness and employment for veterans.
“We’re helping connect veterans with registered apprenticeship programs so they can transfer the skills they learned in the military to well-paying jobs here at home,” he said. “No one should be homeless in this country, especially not those who served.”
He urged Congress to triple the number of rental assistance vouchers for “extremely low-income veterans.”
Biden did not take questions from reporters after his speech, instead moving through the crowd of 100-plus invited guests for over an hour, shaking hands and posing for photos.
One item not addressed by Biden was the Wednesday morning shooting of a Provo man by the FBI. Federal agents shot and killed Craig Deleeuw Robertson, 75, while serving a warrant for social media posts he made repeatedly threatening the lives of Biden and other Democratic officials.
“I don’t know all of the details. I haven’t been briefed on the FBI shooting. What I know is that the security and safety of our president is a really big deal,” Gov. Spencer Cox said.
Several Democratic officials in the state were invited to attend the president’s speech, including Utah Sens. Kathleen Riebe, Luz Escamilla, Nate Blouin and Jen Plumb. A host of local and state officials were also in attendance while Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Cox, a Republican, addressed the crowd before the president.
Cox was the only statewide or federal official on hand for Biden’s arrival Wednesday, joined by Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who was also an invited guest for the Thursday address. After meeting Biden at Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base, Cox rode in the motorcade and discussed Utah issues, he told reporters after the speech.
In addition to being the only Republican speaker on Thursday, Cox was the only GOP elected official in attendance and met the president without either U.S. senator or any of Utah’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“The airport invitations were also very, very limited. I know Sen. Romney is out of the state right now and that was part of it,” Cox said. “I remember when President (Barack) Obama came, no one ever asked Gov. (Gary) Herbert whether or not he would be there. That was not even a — never even a discussion, never even a question.”
Cox said the two discussed a series of issues including preservation of the Great Salt Lake, the CHIPS Act and Biden’s creation Tuesday of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni–Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in Arizona. Designation of the monument was swiftly criticized by Cox, as well as U.S. Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee.
“He’s not a bad guy because he designated a monument. I think he’s wrong, I think he’s very wrong. I think that what he’s trying to do is to preserve that land,” Cox said. “He’s not evil because he designated a monument. We’re not evil because we think it’s a bad idea.”
In addition to serving as governor of Utah, Cox is chair of the National Governors Association and recently launched a campaign called “Disagree Better” which seeks to improve civil discourse in America.
Thursday marked Biden’s first — and likely only — visit to Utah as president, having last visited the state in 2016 while serving as vice president. Obama and Donald Trump each made one visit to the state while in office, with Trump signing proclamations to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments during his stop, while George W. Bush came to Utah four times while in office.
Oscar Mata, Utah Democratic Party vice chair, said he hopes the president will come back to Utah ahead of the 2024 election.
“I told him that this can’t be the last time we see him here,” Mata said. “The president has shown that we can turn traditionally red states — Georgia, Arizona — purple. … This goes to show Utah is no longer this flyover state.”
After leaving the medical center, Biden attended a fundraiser in Park City hosted by Kristi and John Cumming, founder of ski resort company Powdr, and Nancy and Mark Gilbert, former U.S. ambassador.
During the fundraiser, Biden discussed his support for same-sex marriage, China and democracy before going back to Washington, D.C., Thursday evening.