RFK Jr attacks Trump and Biden as he makes 2024 pitch to Libertarian voters

<span>Robert F Kennedy Jr speaks at the Libertarian convention on Friday.</span><span>Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images</span>
Robert F Kennedy Jr speaks at the Libertarian convention on Friday.Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Robert Kennedy Jr, a longshot independent candidate for US president, has sought to woo Libertarian party voters by casting rivals Donald Trump and Joe Biden as enemies of individual freedom.

Kennedy, 70, brought Libertarians to their feet by promising to pardon government whistleblower Edward Snowden, currently exiled in Russia, and drop espionage charges against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder battling US attempts to extradite him from Britain.

Founded in 1971, the Libertarian party is committed to limiting the size and scope of government, and gained 1.2% of the national vote in the 2020 presidential election. But with this year’s race looking tight, Kennedy, an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist and environmental advocate, and Trump, the Republican nominee, are chasing votes at its its convention in Washington.

Early in a 45-minute speech, Kennedy made light of the recent revelation that he had a brainworm more than a decade ago. Accusing past leaders of repeatedly encroaching on personal liberties, up to and including the coronavirus pandemic, he said to applause: “Maybe a brainworm ate that part of memory, but I don’t recall any part of the United States constitution where there is an exemption for pandemics.”

Addressing a few hundred delegates, Kennedy accused Trump of allowing the government to abuse individual liberty during the pandemic. He said: “I think he had the right instinct when he came into office. He was initially very reluctant to impose lockdowns, but then he got rolled by his bureaucrats. He caved in and many of our most fundamental rights disappeared practically overnight.”

Kennedy earned further applause when he asserted: “All of our constitutional rights were ploughed under. They closed all the churches but they kept open the Walmarts and the liquor stores.”

He accused Trump of closing down 3.3m businesses. “President Trump said he was going to run America like a business, and he came in and he gave the keys to all of our businesses to a 50-year bureaucrat who’d never been elected to anything and had no accountability,” he said.

Kennedy touched a nerve in his audience when he turned to the espionage charges against Assange, who this week won the right to bring a fresh appeal against his extradition, and National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Snowden. Each line was greeted with cheers and applause as he spoke.

“President Trump also assaulted the first amendment and failed to defend press freedom when he continued President [Barack] Obama’s persecution and prosecution of Julian Assange,” he said. “Assange should be celebrated as a hero. He did exactly what journalists are supposed to do, which is to expose government corruption. We shouldn’t put him in prison; we should have a monument to him here in Washington DC.

“The same is true of Edward Snowden … He’s a hero, not a criminal, and I’m going to tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to do what President Trump should have done. On my first day in office, I’m going to pardon Edward Snowden and I’m going to drop charges – all charges – against Julian Assange.”

The room erupted in roars of approval.

Kennedy argued that he deserves a place on the debate stage with Biden and Trump, who have so far agreed to two TV debates without him. Opinion polls suggest that he could siphon votes from both men, with a May Reuters/ Ipsos survey showing he was supported by 13% of respondents.

He went to take aim at the current president, too. “When President Trump left office, the assault on the constitution intensified. President Biden violated a freedom so fundamental that James Madison didn’t even think to put it in the Bill of Rights.”

Kennedy accused Biden of “a programme of coercion and information control” during the pandemic, repeating unfounded claims that Biden colluded with the FBI to coerce social media sites to allow government agencies to carry out “an obscene orgy of federal censorship”. He said it went from “medical misinformation” to an entire censorship industrial complex that also suppresses critics of the war in Ukraine.

Coronavirus vaccines were deemed safe and effective by the US government and its regulatory agencies as well as the World Health Organization. The first two years of Covid vaccines saved an estimated 3m lives in the US alone, according to a study published by the Commonwealth Fund.

Kennedy has been criticised for making false medical claims over the years about vaccines. The son of Senator Robert F Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968 during his own presidential bid, Kennedy has drawn rebukes from his famous family, who have publicly backed Biden. At his event on Friday, badges reminiscent of John F Kennedy’s 1960s campaign were placed on the seats.

Kennedy, who chose wealthy lawyer Nicole Shanahan as his running mate, and who is officially on the ballot in seven states so far, supports Israel and has questioned a six-week ceasefire backed by Biden. On Friday, one delegate shouted: “Free Palestine! Free Palestine!” Kennedy replied: “Happy to talk afterwards.”

The candidate went on to pledge: “Murder is not OK anywhere in any form. That is why I will end the forever wars. The wars that have bankrupted our nation and ruined our reputation abroad.There were cheers and shouts of “Yes!”

Overall, Kennedy’s reception at the convention was warm, throwing down the gauntlet to Trump, who is due to speak on Saturday evening.

Dan Belforti, a Libertarian party member wearing a “Kennedy 2024” T-shirt, said: “He’s libertarian enough. He’s actually better on the environment than the Libertarian party platform is. A true free market would price in the externalities of pollution but the Libertarian party doesn’t necessarily put that in their platform yet.”

Belforti, 60, a retired financial adviser and former congressional candidate and radio host, also praised Kennedy’s vaccine scepticism.He’s right. Well researched. It’s amazing to me how the the American press at least has demonised him as some kind of anti-vax extremist when in reality he’s a very sensible, reasonable, rational man, so it just goes to show you how powerful the pharmaceutical lobby is.”

But Belforti, who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, parts company with Kennedy on Gaza: “I don’t understand why he is supportive of Israel’s response to the terrorist attack. Around the world people would understand that you want to enact some kind of justice but I think what’s going on is so far overboard that I can’t support that policy. That’s the one issue I think Bobby Kennedy might be weakest on in this room.”

Pendleton Spicer, 79, a musician and county elections official from Tucson, Arizona, has no intention of voting for Kennedy. “He just doesn’t represent my beliefs. I feel like he’s bought into the narrative about how horrible climate change is. I disagree with the narrative.

But she added: “I like his position on medical stuff – there’s plenty of science to say that the vaccines are dangerous – as long as he holds the position that we have freedom over our bodies, freedom of choice about what goes into our bodies.”

Adrian Malagon, chair of the Libertarian party in California, said: “He’s a very interesting man. He’s great on medical freedom. There’s some things that he’s fantastic on. He doesn’t hold all libertarian positions but he is a fascinating man. I’ve had the privilege of meeting him, speaking with him and I very much like him.”

Kennedy’s appearance was protested by progressive group MoveOn, which circulated a mobile billboard around the Libertarian National Convention in a push to argue that a vote for Kennedy is effectively a vote for Trump.

Joel Payne, MoveOn’s political action chief communications officer, said: “As if we needed any more evidence, Kennedy Jr made it clear today that he should be nowhere near the Oval Office. It’s no surprise that Kennedy Jr and Trump are on the same stage this weekend. They already share the same views on restricting abortion access and spreading dangerous conspiracy theories.”