President Donald Trump enters the final week before Election Day with a surge in US coronavirus cases and another White House outbreak threatening efforts to reverse his political fortunes with a string of barnstorming rallies.
Trump started the weekend on a strong note, with campaign aides believing his improved performance in the final debate against Democratic nominee Joe Biden could provide a boost among voters still making up their minds.
But once again, coronavirus intervened.
On Saturday night came news that several people in Vice President Mike Pence’s inner circle had contracted the potentially deadly virus.
Those testing positive included Pence’s longtime political adviser, Marty Obst, and the vice president’s chief of staff, Marc Short. Another member of Pence’s staff has also been diagnosed with the virus in recent days, according to people familiar with the matter.
Pence had been mostly untouched by the coronavirus cases that swept through the White House in the past month, infecting Trump, the first lady, their teenage son, and several top aides. In a twist, Pence also happens to lead the White House coronavirus task force.
Despite the new outbreak within his office — and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that suggest he should quarantine unless performing essential work, which should be conducted wearing a mask — Pence said he would proceed with his official and campaign schedules.
“The Vice President will maintain his schedule in accordance with the CDC guidelines for essential personnel,” Pence press secretary Devin O’Malley said in a statement.
Those duties were expected to include a visit to the Senate Monday night to preside over the vote to confirm Amy Coney Barrett — Trump’s third nominee to the US Supreme Court.
“As vice president I am president of the Senate. And I’m going to be in a chair,” Pence said Friday, before the outbreak in his inner circle became known. He added that he would not “miss that vote for the world.”
The vice president’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on Sunday about whether Pence would continue with his plans. But his attendance would risk making coronavirus once again the center of attention at what was intended as a celebratory moment for the White House, as it did in the flurry of cases that followed Trump’s Sept. 26 Rose Garden announcement of Barrett’s selection.
In a letter on Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, urged colleagues to “cast your votes quickly and from a safe distance” and avoid congregating on the Senate floor.
“Their carelessness with the health and safety of their colleagues and Capitol employees mirrors their carelessness with the health and safety of Americans during this crisis,” Schumer wrote.
Deepening the administration’s woes were comments from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who in an interview Sunday with CNN said the US was “not going to control” coronavirus, which has killed more than 225,000 Americans.
“We are not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows said. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas.”
Top Democrats — including former President Barack Obama — seized on the remarks to argue that the Trump White House was abandoning efforts to suppress the virus.
“Eight months into the pandemic, as new cases are breaking records, we need an administration that’s not going to wave the white flag,” Obama tweeted Sunday.
Biden, in a statement, said the comments from Meadows signaled that “they’ve given up on their basic duty to protect the American people.”
The latest White House outbreak and Meadows’ comments were amplified by a rising national case load.
The US on Saturday reported record coronavirus infections for the second day in a row, adding 85,317 cases, with the nation averaging over 800 deaths a day. Hospitalizations are rising steadily, and Trump’s first Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, warned Sunday that the nation had hit “a dangerous tipping point.”
The administration’s pandemic response has weighed on Trump’s campaign all year. The RealClearPolitics national polling average shows Biden with an 8-point advantage. Some 57% of Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of the virus with just 39% approving, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last Wednesday.
It’s also distracted from the president’s efforts to pivot to what he considers winning issues, from Biden’s remarks during last week’s debate saying he wanted to eliminate federal support for the oil industry, to questions over foreign business dealings by the Democratic nominee’s son.
Still, Trump hopes a breakneck campaign schedule can help activate voters in the swing states he needs to win. The president plans three rallies in Pennsylvania on Monday, with a trip to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska slated for Tuesday.
One plus for Trump is that many Republican voters aren’t that worried about Covid-19. CBS polling released on Sunday showed that in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, only between 12% and 15% of likely Trump voters said they were “very concerned” about getting the virus.
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