Despite the coronavirus spreading among Vice President Mike Pence’s orbit, the President and Vice President are ignoring the threat of the virus nine days before Election Day, continuing to downplay its risk at packed rallies across the country while endangering the lives of people around them, including their own staff and supporters.
Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, tested positive on Saturday, the vice president’s office announced in a statement late in the day. Sources told CNN that Marty Obst, a senior adviser to Pence who is not a government employee, and at least three staffers in Pence’s office also tested positive for the virus in recent days. Zach Bauer, a longtime aide and one of the staffers who works closest with Pence, has tested positive for coronavirus, CNN learned Sunday.
“We’re going to keep opening up America again,” Pence said at a North Carolina rally Sunday evening, arguing that the Democrats’ approach would be far too restrictive and barely mentioning the virus and the fact that cases are surging.
Trump once again advanced the false claim this weekend that coronavirus infections are rising because the US has increased testing and chided reporters in Ohio for using the word “cases” – arguing the phrase is meant to “scare people.”
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows made the administration’s approach clear when he told CNN’s Jake Tapper Sunday that it was not possible to control the virus, because “it is a contagious virus just like the flu.” He later added that the White House is “making efforts to contain it.”
“We are not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas,” Meadows told Tapper on “State of the Union.” “What we need to do is make sure that we have the proper mitigation factors, whether it’s therapies or vaccines or treatments to make sure that people don’t die from this.”
Senate Majority Whip John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, pushed back against those comments.
“We all have control, and we all have responsibility as leaders to set an example that consists of doing the right thing to stop the spread,” he said, pointing to mask wearing and social distancing. “There are certain elements of it that yes, we cannot control. It’s a virus. It’s very aggressive. It wants to infect a lot of people, but there are things about our own behavior that we can control.”
Other GOP senators distanced themselves from Meadows’ comments.
Asked whether they should stop trying to get the virus under control, South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds said, “Definitely not.”
“No, I think we do everything and throw the kitchen sink at getting the virus under control,” Indiana Sen. Mike Braun said when asked the same question.
With just a little more than a week to go, and early voting already surpassing 2016 levels, the campaign is still dominated by Covid-19 – an area where Trump has gotten poor marks. The virus is still the most important issue to American voters, millions of whom are waiting for Congress to strike a stimulus deal that would provide emergency relief to unemployed workers and businesses that are struggling to hang on. But the two sides remain at an impasse as hopes for a deal in the near-term fade.
The US hit a new daily record for coronavirus cases last week, but both the administration and Trump campaign don’t seem to have learned from last month’s Rose Garden Supreme Court nomination ceremony, which has since been called a superspreader event.
Dueling rallies this weekend showed the stark contrast between the campaigns’ visions of how to tackle the pandemic. Pence and second lady Karen Pence each tested negative for coronavirus on Sunday, a White House official said, but despite his contact with multiple people who tested positive, the vice president is refusing to quarantine and plans to continue traveling and campaigning every day in the final stretch to Election Day, an official told CNN.
Meadows said Sunday that Pence will continue “wearing a mask, socially distancing and when he goes up to speak he will take the mask off and put it back on.” Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris had canceled travel a week ago “out of an abundance of caution” after two people in her orbit tested positive. The California senator on Sunday said the Trump administration is “admitting defeat” on the virus.
Trump wouldn’t say whether Pence should come off the trail. “You have to ask him, he’s doing very well, good crowds, very socially distanced, he’s doing very well,” Trump told reporters after he touched down in Maine on Sunday. There didn’t appear to be much distancing at Pence’s Saturday rallies in Florida.
Pence said on Friday that he’s planning to preside over the Senate vote to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett Monday evening.
“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,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote to his Democratic colleagues, urging them not to congregate in the chamber ahead of Sunday’s procedural vote advancing Barrett’s nomination.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to answer a reporter’s question Sunday on whether Pence should stay away from the Senate because several members of his team tested positive for coronavirus.
But New Jersey’s former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, an ABC News contributor, said Sunday he’s “surprised” Pence is not quarantining. “The whole getting of Covid to begin with and the not wearing of masks has been a problem,” Christie, who has urged Americans to wear a mask since his own positive diagnosis, told ABC’s Martha Raddatz.
Out on the campaign trail, at rallies with little mask wearing or social distancing, Trump has continued to make the dubious claim that the pandemic is “rounding the turn” – an assertion that stands in complete opposition to the facts. His disconnection from reality gave former Vice President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama an opening Saturday to call out his denials.
Obama and Biden condemn Trump’s approach
Both Biden and Obama, who hit the campaign trail in Miami as his former vice president’s most powerful surrogate, criticized Trump’s lack of a strategy for halting the spread of the virus as the weather grows colder and more Americans head indoors.
“Eight months into this pandemic, new cases are breaking records. Donald Trump isn’t going to suddenly protect all of us. He can’t even take the basic steps to protect himself,” Obama said in Florida, a state he won twice where CNN’s poll of polls currently shows Trump and Biden running even. “There’s no sense that he’s coming up with a new approach, with a new plan. He doesn’t even acknowledge that there’s a problem.”
Noting the President’s recurring theme that he speaks for the forgotten men and women of America, Biden criticized Trump for viewing the country through the lens of blue and red states when it comes to Covid-19.
“He got elected and he immediately forgot the forgotten man. Remember what Donald Trump said when Covid hit 200,000 deaths? He said if you take out the blue states with Democratic governors and just look at the red states with Republican governors, we’re doing quite well. First of all that’s not true,” Biden said Saturday.
“Second, (why) the hell would the President say, ‘I’m not going to do anything for Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin, Democratic states. I’m only going to help red states.’ Where does this guy come from?” Biden said. “Look folks, I don’t see the presidency that way. I don’t see America that way. This has to change. And it will change with me.”
Obama did a line-by-line takedown of Trump’s character flaws and his bullying behavior, mocking the President for complaining about his press coverage and for walking out of an interview this past week with Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes.”
“This President, he likes to act tough and talk tough,” Obama said. “He thinks scowling and being mean is tough, and being rude is tough. But when ’60 Minutes’ and Lesley Stahl are too tough for you, you ain’t all that tough. If you’ve got to walk out of a ‘60 Minutes’ interview, then you’re never going to stand up to a dictator.”
Referencing some of Trump’s recent comments that Obama, Hillary Clinton and members of the Biden family should all be thrown in jail, Obama also argued that America should not have a President “who threatens people with jail just for criticizing him.”
“That’s not normal behavior, Florida,” Obama said. “You wouldn’t tolerate it from a coworker. You wouldn’t tolerate it from a high school principal. You wouldn’t tolerate it from a coach. You wouldn’t tolerate it from a family member. ‘Florida Man’ wouldn’t even do this stuff,” he said to laughter and honking from the drive-in audience at the Miami event. “Why are we accepting it from the President of the United States?”
Trump’s self-centered delusion extended to the horse race this weekend, when he predicted “a red wave” in November up and down the ticket, despite Democrats being on track to gain seats in the House and Senate – largely because the President has been such a drag on down-ballot Republicans. But the Washington Post reported that the President admitted to donors in Nashville Thursday that “the Senate is very tough,” because, he said, there are some senators he refuses to help.
Hopes dim for a stimulus as Democrats pin blame on Trump
In their back-to-back events on Saturday, Obama in Florida and Biden in Pennsylvania both argued that Trump should be spending more of his time trying to work with Congress to channel more emergency aid to the American people in the midst of rising poverty levels and economic uncertainty due to the pandemic.
Biden touted his plans for halting the spread of the virus through testing, tracing, a more robust distribution of personal protective equipment and national standards for schools and businesses to open safely. And he said he would prioritize “bringing together Republicans and Democrats to deliver relief to working families and schools and businesses.”
“I’m not going to shut down the economy. I’m going to shut down the virus and build the economy,” Biden said. “Folks, this is all within our power. We can build back better than before.”
During his Miami rally, Obama faulted Trump for failing to get a deal to “extend relief to the millions of families who can’t pay the rent or put food on the table.”
“The fact that he can’t make that happen – that he won’t make that happen – it’s hard to understand, because it’s not like it’s his money. He barely pays income taxes,” Obama said, alluding to New York Times reporting that Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes during his first year in the White House.
Trump, who did not speak at any length about the possibility of a Covid-19 relief package on Saturday, chose instead to emphasize positive news like the drop in the nation’s mortality rate, due to enhanced treatments and better management of cases. And he touted the nation’s fragile economic recovery – claiming it would be jeopardized by a Biden presidency.
The President argued the election is a choice between a “Trump super recovery” and a Biden depression, at times seizing on Biden’s confusing comments about fracking, which came up during Thursday’s debate.
As the President played clips of Biden talking about fracking at his own rallies this weekend, Biden responded on Saturday. “Let me get something straight here in coal country,” Biden said in Luzerne County. “I will not ban fracking, period. I will protect Pennsylvania jobs.”
But despite the back-and-forth on the campaign trail about the economy, Americans are still waiting for real economic relief.
Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin needed to strike a deal within 48 hours if they wanted to pass a coronavirus stimulus relief package before Election Day. But that self-imposed deadline passed and talks did not appear any closer to a conclusion at the end of the week.
Pelosi told Tapper Sunday on “State of the Union” that she never gives up hope, but said the two sides have not reached an agreement on central issues like coronavirus testing, jobless benefits and state and local funding.
Meadows told Tapper that the White House has continued to make “offer after offer” and “Nancy continues to move the goalposts,” while Pelosi accused the administration of doing the same.
If they are able to resolve differences on the remaining issues, “it could happen this week in the House,” Pelosi said. “But that’s up to (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch (McConnell), as to whether it would happen in the Senate and go to the President’s desk, which is our hope and prayer,” she added.
This story has been updated with additional reporting on Sunday.