CNN  — 

As the nation marked a somber Fourth of July with many Americans confined to their homes amid an alarming rise in coronavirus cases, President Donald Trump used his stage on the White House’s South Lawn Saturday to put forward a mystifying – and dangerously misleading claim – that 99% of coronavirus cases in America are “totally harmless.”

The President’s assertion without evidence about the virus was his latest attempt to minimize the threat of the coronavirus as it ravages the United States with cases rising across the country, and as an increasing number of top Republican officials from the nation’s governors to members of Congress pleaded with Americans to redouble their efforts to curb the spread of the virus, warning of the dangerous consequences if current trends continue.

Looking to distract the nation from the frightening spike in Covid-19 cases and America’s grim death toll as it surpassed 129,000 people, Trump has plunged deeper into a racially charged strategy meant to bolster his support among White Americans who feel threatened by the cultural change sweeping America after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling

To that end, he reprised many of the racially divisive lines from his speech at Mount Rushmore Friday night, where he claimed that a left-wing fascist mob is trying to “end America” by erasing the nation’s history and indoctrinating its children. Apparently hoping to top Friday night’s inflammatory language, he compared his crusade to defeat “the radical left” to the efforts by the United States to eradicate the Nazis.

“American heroes defeated the Nazis, dethroned the fascists, toppled the communists, saved American values, upheld American principles and chased down the terrorists to the very ends of the earth,” Trump said Saturday evening at the White House. “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing.”

The President’s speech was part of an event he hosted to celebrate the Fourth of July by showcasing the pageantry and power of the US military. While much of the nation heeded the recommendations of Trump administration public health experts to avoid large gatherings, CNN observed that there appeared to be little social distancing on the South Lawn and many guests were not wearing masks.

Misleading on the virus

It was in that same speech that he made his latest puzzling claim about the virus, as he described the administration’s flawed and lagging response to the pandemic as a great American success story and falsely suggested, once again, that the rise in cases in the US is due to increased testing.

“Now we have tested, almost 40 million people. By so doing, we show cases – 99% of which are totally harmless – results that no other country can show because no other country has testing that we have,” Trump said. “Not in terms of the numbers, or in terms of the quality.”

It is unclear how the President could be under the impression that 99% of cases are “totally harmless.” There have now been at least 2.8 million cases of coronavirus in the United States, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University. While the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 35% of cases are asymptomatic, those patients can still spread the virus. As of Saturday, Johns Hopkins estimated that the fatality rate for the US was 4.6%. The White House has not returned CNN’s request for comment on the President’s claim.

The commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration on Sunday declined to defend the President and repeatedly refused to say whether Trump’s remark is true or false.

“I’m not going to get into who is right and who is wrong,” Dr. Stephen Hahn, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

With front-line medical workers in the audience, Trump also touted the nation’s moves to manufacture more of the personal protective equipment and ventilators that were so desperately needed at the beginning of the outbreak. He said the US will “likely have a therapeutic and or vaccine solution, long before the end of the year.”

He again blamed the spread of the virus on China: “China’s secrecy, deceptions and cover-up allowed it to spread all over the world, 189 countries. And China must be held fully accountable,” Trump said. China has repeatedly denied these claims.

The President’s optimistic language about the coronavirus was very much at odds with the conditions on the ground in the nation’s hotspots this weekend. States like Arizona, California, Florida and Texas were still seeing record-high numbers of cases last week. And hospitals in at least two Texas counties were at full capacity at the start of the holiday weekend, as the Lone Star State’s county judges urged their residents to shelter in place.

Trump’s refusal to confront the magnitude of the health crisis that America is facing has few parallels among other presidents in recent history. Historian Douglas Brinkley noted on CNN Saturday evening that President Woodrow Wilson attempted to minimize the Spanish Flu pandemic because America was engaged in fighting a war.

But that effort by Wilson was “nothing like what Donald Trump is doing here, which is trying to turn July 4th into his own private lionization of himself,” Brinkley said, pointing to Trump’s recent visits to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Arizona, “not caring about social distancing, not wearing a mask.”

“Can you imagine Franklin Roosevelt in the middle of World War II not invoking the spirit of World War II?” Brinkley said on CNN’s “Newsroom,” describing Roosevelt’s effort to bring Americans together in a time of a national crisis. “At the very least Donald Trump should be giving a speech on this Fourth saying we have new heroes, the medical workers in America, the nurses and the doctors and technicians that we now can be proud of and some day there will be hospitals and memorials named after them.”

“Instead he’s just playing a game of swooping up monuments and memorials,” Brinkley said, alluding to Trump’s obsession with defending what the President views as an assault on statues of Confederate generals and other key figures in American history with racist pasts. “It’s been an abysmal performance by him.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and possible vice presidential pick for presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, said Sunday that Trump should focus more on the pandemic and reports that Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan.

“He spent more time worried about honoring dead Confederates than he did talking about the … 130,000 Americans who lost their lives to Covid-19 or by warning Russia off of the bounty they’re putting on Americans heads,” said Duckworth on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “His priorities are all wrong here.”

Sabotaging his own public health experts

The President’s appearance at Friday’s event in South Dakota, which had no social distancing and very little mask wearing, and at his Fourth of July party in Washington, DC, where few of his guests chose to wear masks, came at a time when even some of his closest allies are urging him to take a greater leadership role in encouraging facial coverings and other measures that would curb the spread of the virus.

Trump has held out on masks even as a long list of GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, as well as his own surgeon general and public health officials, have pleaded with the public to wear face coverings.

In an abrupt reversal Thursday, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott made face coverings mandatory for most residents across the Lone Star State. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another Trump ally, wore a mask at a number of events last week, including with Vice President Mike Pence, who has walked a careful line himself – wearing one at numerous recent public appearances while saying the decision should be up to local officials and individuals.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, toured his state last week urging Georgians to wear masks. And even Trump’s boosters like Steve Doocy, a co-host of “Fox & Friends,” said this week that if the President wore a mask it would set “a good example” and he’d be a “good role model.”

Doocy noted that his friends in New Jersey and New York wear masks all the time and keep telling him that if the President wore a mask “it would make him look as if he’s taking it seriously and is listening to the CDC.”

Meanwhile, Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, said Sunday that Trump’s actions are “dangerous.”

“It makes me angry,” Adler told Bash. “It is dangerous not to be sending a clear message to Americans, to folks in my town.”

“When they start hearing that kind of ambiguous message coming out of Washington, there are more and more people that won’t wear masks, that won’t social distance, that won’t do what it takes to keep a community safe,” he said, adding that he would like Abbott, a Republican, to give local authorities the ability to issue stay-at-home orders.

But Trump did not heed that advice at either event this weekend, allowing his Fourth of July spectacular to play out like any other year. But in Washington, DC, at least, many of the usual spectators who would turn out for the display of military might and fireworks did not this year. The crowds were sparse, a sign that many Americans are now paying more attention to the guidance of medical experts than to the example of their President.

This story has been updated with additional interviews from CNN’s “State of the Union.”

CNN’s Tami Luhby, Maggie Fox and Jamie Gumbrecht contributed to this report.