The President’s poor example represents a typical effort to divide Americans and highlight divisions over specific issues for his own political gain. But in the long run, apart from putting thousands of lives at risk, it is counterproductive, since a more stringent effort to avoid rises in infections as states open up would likely promote the fast economic recovery on which Trump is banking a reelection campaign that has slipped into trouble in recent weeks.
By ignoring or trying to talk away rising infections, the White House is effectively revealing that it has neither the plans nor the inclination to aggressively fight the worst public health crisis in a century, with the United States failing to see the sharp declines in infections after reaching its peak that other major industrialized nations have seen.
Yet another week begins with a White House in turmoil
A Trump adviser told CNN that Trump is “very” upset about the turnout at the rally Saturday night. Donors and friends of the President have been fuming Sunday in the wake of Trump’s poorly-attended rally this weekend, a person involved with the re-election said.
The administration’s sluggish efforts to ramp up coronavirus testing early in the pandemic worsened the disease’s impact. And though the number of tests conducted has now reached 25 million, the figure is far below the millions of tests a week that health experts say are needed to identify the true spread of the disease and to trace and isolate those infected.
“You know testing is a double-edged sword,” Trump said Saturday. “Here’s the bad part … when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people; you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.”
It is not clear whether officials did slow testing at a time when they were claiming that they were speeding it up and falsely proclaiming that the United States was a world leader in testing. An administration official told CNN that Trump was “obviously kidding.” Navarro also said the President was joking on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“Come on now, that was tongue in cheek,” Navarro told Tapper. “That was a light moment for him at a rally.”
Why the President would be joking about the testing effort in a pandemic that has killed thousands of Americans and revealed his own administration’s liabilities is a mystery. But if he was speaking in jest, the remark in itself would reflect the flippant manner in which he has approached the pandemic and his own rejection of the scientific steps that could improve the situation.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf argued that Trump was mad at the press for its (factually correct) coverage of rising cases of new coronavirus infections.
“What you heard from the President was frustration — frustration in the sense of that we are testing, I believe we’ve tested over 25 million Americans. We’ve tested more than any other country in this world,” Wolf said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “Instead, the press and others, all they want to focus on is an increasing case count.”
Trump’s remarks drew an immediate rebuke from the campaign of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“This is an appalling attempt to lessen the numbers only to make them look good,” Symone Sanders, a top Biden adviser, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“That’s what will be remembered long after last night’s debacle of a rally — the admission of the President that he slowed testing for his political benefit.”
Rising infection rates
Public health experts reacted with disbelief to Trump’s comments about testing.
“This is incredibly frustrating for the millions of Americans who have gotten sick and have not been able to get tests. It’s got to be incredibly frustrating for people who’ve lost families in nursing homes, because we haven’t been able to test nursing home residents and workers, or meatpacking plant workers. This is unfortunately not a joke,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told CNN on Sunday.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Michael Osterholm, director for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said that the pandemic was like a “forest fire” that might not slow down and was being exacerbated by the White House’s lack of a strategy.
“At this point, we don’t really have a national plan that really puts together what we’re trying to do. We have 50 different states, the District of Columbia, the territories, all kind of with their own plan,” Osterholm said. “We’re at 70% of the number of cases today that we were at the very height of the pandemic cases in early April, and yet I don’t see any kind of a ‘This is where we need to go, this is what we need to do to get there’ kind of effort, and that’s one of our challenges.”
New criticism of the administration’s poor response to the pandemic coincided with alarming new evidence that the disease is making strides in southern and western states. Arizona health officials reported 2,592 new infections on Sunday. The state’s total of cases has nearly doubled in 14 days. Tulsa County, which hosted Trump’s rally, reported yet another new daily high of coronavirus cases with 143 in the previous 24 hours. Florida reported 3,000 more Covid-19 cases on Sunday after reaching a new daily high of over 4,000 new infections the day before.
Officials in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas and other states are reporting that a higher proportion of younger people are testing positive for the virus. While younger people typically experience less severe symptoms of Covid-19 than their elders, they can spread it to others and the data is alarming because it suggests that social distancing and masking are breaking down.
Yet the President has refused to wear a mask in public and been ambivalent at the very least about their use, and his conservative supporters have portrayed the use of masks as an attempt by liberals and elitists to infringe on the basic freedoms of Americans. Were the President to model mask wearing — or argue that it could be a temporary inconvenience that could help everyone resume normal life sooner — he could have huge influence, given the prominence of his platform and his influence over his supporters.
“The best spokesman would be the President,” Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer ahead of Trump’s event in the city on Tuesday.
“If he told everyone at that rally it was important to wear masks, I believe they would do it,” Gallego said. “Please send the strongest signal to everyone — they need to wash their hands, they need to wear masks and they have to stay home if there’s any question if they are sick.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta and Sarah Westwood contributed to this report.