Donald Trump claims coronavirus is 'ending' as infections spike
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Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey
Washington - Faced with record levels of US coronavirus infections and a new White House outbreak, President Donald Trump declared on Monday that the pandemic was "ending anyway," further tying his re-election bid to his ability to convince voters, including those at large rallies that defy health authorities, that the viral danger is fading.
Financial markets fell as he spoke, with investors reacting to the growing infection rates and dwindling hope of a pre-election stimulus package.
Vice President Pence cancelled a planned appearance at the US Senate for the expected confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court justice, after Democrats objected because he has been in close contact with at least one of the five staff members who tested positive for the disease in recent days.
Over the past week, the nation has suffered a 20 percent increase in new diagnosed cases, a 13% rise in hospitalizations and an 11 percent rise in daily deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, with the seven-day average of new cases reaching its highest level ever.
The increase has been driven by spread in rural communities and northern states, including Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and parts of Michigan, all of which could play a decisive role in the presidential contest.
Trump nonetheless argued in three Pennsylvania rallies - where thousands gathered without social distancing or consistent mask-wearing - that the viral danger has been exaggerated by the news media and that Democratic politicians, including the governors of several swing states, had imposed unnecessary restrictions on large gatherings for political reasons.
"It's ending anyway. We are rounding the turn. It's ending anyway," Trump said of the virus at an outdoor stop in Allentown, Pennsylvania. "Normal life. That's what we want, right? Normal life. Normal life. We just want normal life. It's happening, very quickly."
Before taking the stage, the president rejected his opponent Joe Biden's claim in a statement that Trump's strategy had been to "wave the white flag of defeat and hope that by ignoring it, the virus would simply go away."
"No, he has. He's waved the white flag on life. He doesn't leave his basement," Trump said. "We're doing a great job."
In a stark contrast to Trump's packed campaign schedule, Biden, who tested negative for the virus again Monday, travelled Monday afternoon for a single unannounced campaign stop in Chester, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, where he addressed reporters.
"The bottom line is, Donald Trump is the worst possible president, the worst possible person, to try to lead us through this pandemic," Biden said. "Either he just doesn't have any idea what to do or just doesn't care."
Biden condemned Trump's recent claim that medical professionals are inflating the number of covid-19 cases to "get more money."
"What in the hell is the matter with this man?" Biden exclaimed, noting what he said were the deaths of more than 1 000 health-care workers due to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. "Mr President, you have to have a little bit of shame. Just a little bit of shame. Because people are dying."
Biden said he plans travel in the coming week to Iowa, Florida, Wisconsin, Georgia and possibly other states.
"I am not overconfident about anything," he said, when asked about his campaign schedule. "But the big difference about us, the reason it doesn't look like we are travelling, is we are not putting on superspreaders. We are doing what we are doing here - everybody is wearing a mask and trying as best we can to be socially distanced."
Biden's latest attacks on Trump's handling of the virus stemmed from a television interview Sunday in which White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said, "We're not going to control the pandemic."
Meadows expanded on his remarks Monday by mocking Biden's purposeful efforts to wear a mask in public, a measure public health experts say could save more than 100 000 American lives in coming months.
"The only person waving the white flag along with his white mask is Joe Biden," Meadows told reporters travelling with the president. "We're going to defeat the virus. We're not going to control it. We will try to contain it as best we can."
That argument was rejected Monday by Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Girior, a political appointee, who contradicted Meadows in a call with reporters.
"I think we can control the pandemic," he said. "I want to be clear that what we have done, what the American people have done, has been able to put out very significant outbreaks."
He encouraged Americans to keep their distance from each other, wear masks when they can't stay more than six feet apart and frequently wash their hands.
Trump has been inconsistent in his embrace of that advice. At an event in the Oval Office on Friday, where people gathered in proximity without masks, Trump mocked a reporter from Reuters for wearing "the largest mask I've ever seen."
The posture of the president and other administration officials stands in opposition to a majority of American voters, who consistently have favoured mask-wearing and social distancing - and have harshly judged Trump's handling of the pandemic.
Rather than trying to reverse those views, Trump has chosen to flout the objections of health officials, even those in his own government, to corral big crowds of supporters.
Trump has been pushing aides, in conversations on Air Force One and from the White House residence, to schedule more campaign rallies for the final stretch - hoping to do four or five a day. Aides say his travel is likely to focus heavily on Midwest states - Pennsylvania and Wisconsin chief among them.
The president has become convinced, aides said, that people are tired of the coronavirus and staying home. Trump and Meadows have both sought to downplay the news of the virus in the final days of the campaign. Officials are trying to publicly show optimism, even placing positive polls on the seats of Air Force One where reporters sit.
Democratic strategists believe Trump is making a major error. They remain confident that Trump's strategy of dismissing concern over the virus, or blaming it on a conspiracy by the media and political opponents, will be self defeating.
A Washington Post-ABC News Poll in early October found 65 percent of Americans were either very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family would catch the coronavirus. Those answers have remained steady throughout the course of the pandemic.
"Every time Donald Trump pushes conspiracy theories, it just reminds everyone that he takes no actual responsibility for the reality that's plaguing their lives," said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. "It's as if the captain of the Titanic not only refused to go down with the ship, but demanded everyone else stay aboard because it was actually an airplane."
Pence aides say the vice president, who has tested negative for the virus on Monday, will continue to attend campaign events, even though his proximity to infected staff marks him as a "close contact" under federal guidelines.
White House officials said Pence's campaign work makes him "essential" allowing him to ignore Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that he self-quarantine for 14 days after close contact with an individual who is recently symptomatic or tests positive.
While Trump travelled the Keystone State, Pence appeared at a closely packed outside event in Minnesota, the state the White House coronavirus task force he chairs categorized on October 18 as in the "red zone for cases," the highest level, with the 19th highest rate of Covid-19 spread in the country. Nonetheless, many in his audience did not wear masks.
He encouraged those in attendance to "vote with a friend" and talk to their extended circle of neighbours about the upcoming election.
"You know I will always believe that the greatest form of media in the this country is not your TV networks, it's not your big newspapers, it's not even social media. I think it's word of mouth, " Pence said. "We came so close in Minnesota last time around because people were talking to each other."
Pence's plan to attend the Senate vote to confirm Barrett was cancelled after 10 Democratic senators demanded that he not appear because his "presence alone could be very dangerous to many people." Because of the expected vote margin, he was not needed to break a tie vote.
Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., was in Washington on Monday, in preparation for the vote on Barret. In a morning interview on ABC's "The View," she responded to Trump's recent attacks on her as a "female socialist."
"You know look, the name calling is not new to me - it's not new to anybody who played on the playground as a child," said Harris, who is not a socialist. "But this is not a playground."
After his final campaign rally, Trump planned to return to the White House, where he had instructed aides to stage an event to celebrate Barret's confirmation, 30 days after holding a White House announcement of her nomination that the nation's top infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, called "a superspreader event." At least eight people, including Trump, tested positive following that event.
Some political and communications advisers to Trump feared Monday that a second event would be a bad idea, according to people familiar with internal discussions, who requested anonymity to speak more frankly. Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is expected to swear Barrett into office.
Asked about the planned White House event, Biden urged caution.
"I don't blame them for celebrating," Biden said. He urged participants to wear masks and practice social distancing, and said it would be a problem if the president did otherwise.
"The words of a president and the actions of a president matter. They matter a great deal," Biden said. "I just hope he is willing to have learned the lesson."