(CNN)President Donald Trump heads into Tuesday’s first crucial debate with Joe Biden recommitting to the failed strategy that ensured the Covid-19 disaster will be the defining legacy feature of his term.
He is again ignoring world-renowned US government scientists, claiming a pandemic that is getting worse is almost over, demanding state openings that will make it worse and presiding over contradictory public health messaging.
“Tremendous progress is being made. And I say, and I’ll say it all the time: We’re rounding the corner,” Trump said at the White House on Monday, ignoring the 9% rise of Covid cases in the US week-on-week, with 21 states, especially in the Midwest, reporting worsening outbreaks of the disease as he cherry picked data to claim the crisis was easing.
Trump’s upbeat assessments of his own poor performance and seeming indifference to the tragic toll of more than 205,000 US deaths give the Democratic nominee an opening when they duel in Cleveland on Tuesday night.
The former vice president expressed incredulity earlier this month over revelations in Bob Woodward’s book that Trump had understood the severity of the virus in February but admitted downplaying it to the American people in an interview with the veteran reporter.
“He waved a white flag. He walked away. He didn’t do a damn thing,” Biden said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on September 9. “Think about it. Think about what he did not do — it’s almost criminal.”
Biden may also target the chaotic nature of the White House’s response to the emergency which was on full display yet again on Monday. Vice President Mike Pence, after showering habitual praise on Trump’s leadership, produced a jarring warning contradicting the President’s optimism.
“Mr. President, the American people should anticipate that … that cases will rise in the days ahead,” said Pence, who earlier this year rebuked the media for reporting on a second infectious wave as cases spiked in the Sun Belt.
Experts say the President’s undermining of government advice on mask wearing, refusal to level with Americans about the danger early on and efforts to prioritize politically helpful economic openings over public health in one of the world’s worst responses to Covid-19 have made the tragedy worse than it needed to be.
His denial, mismanagement and political bullying have, for example, left the reputation of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — once the global standard for public health — in tatters. His push for a quick approval for one of the vaccines currently in development has exacerbated mistrust among Americans for the key remedy that could end the pandemic.
Testing is still far from the levels needed to trace and isolate those with the disease and to allow the safe opening of schools and businesses, notwithstanding a White House event Monday highlighting 150 million rapid point of care tests soon to be sent to states hyped by his administration. The move is likely to help states and local jurisdictions that have been crying out for a national testing plan Trump has refused to put in place. But they still fall far short of the numbers of tests — in the millions per day — that experts say are required to properly contain Covid-19.
In another sign of discord plaguing the government mitigation effort, top government scientists such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Robert Redfield and Dr. Deborah Birx did not appear at Trump’s testing event. But his new favored counselor, Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who joined the White House coronavirus task force in August and has drawn the ire of public health officials who say he is telling Trump what he wants to hear about the pandemic, got a speaking role.
The move came hours after the CDC confirmed that Redfield differed with Atlas on three issues: mask wearing, the extent to which Covid-19 affects children and his reported openness to herd immunity, an approach that relies on widespread infections in the populace that critics say could cost millions of lives. The statement came after NBC first reported a telephone conversation in which Redfield was overheard saying that everything Atlas says is “false.”
Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, who has been marginalized by Trump, was asked by CNN’s Brian Stelter at an event on Monday whether there was acrimony behind the scenes.
“Most are working together. I think you know who the outlier is,” Fauci said.
At the White House on Monday, Atlas had a reassuring message for Trump.
“I anticipate that as — this virus — as we get toward the end of this pandemic — and the vaccine is being developed as quickly as it has been — America will be in a different position,” Atlas said.
“As I’ve said many times, the fear is not the issue here. We really have a handle on what’s going on. We know what to anticipate, and there’s remarkable advances being made as we see today.”
But William Haseltine, a former professor at Harvard Medical School, told CNN’s “New Day” on Monday that Atlas was not a credible member of the President’s team.
“He’s a cutout for a more powerful voice that has, for the entire year, tried to ignore this problem. When he says you don’t need masks, it’s not his voice you are hearing, it’s his boss’ voice,” Haseltine said. “Dr. Atlas is not a serious person to consider his voice in public health matters.”
Trump on Monday issued a new call for Democratic governors, whom he accuses of imposing lockdowns and other measures simply to damage his own electoral hopes, to start opening up their economies more quickly. His demand came despite widespread fears of a spike in coronavirus infections that one influential model at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington now warns could take the death toll to 371,000 by the end of the year.
“Lockdowns can be very harmful, and we have too many states that are locked down right now. Nobody knows what the governors are doing, actually,” the President said.
Trump prefers the approach of one of his top supporters, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who on Friday signed an order allowing all bars and restaurants to operate at 100% capacity and suspended any penalties imposed on people who broke local mask wearing ordinances.
If the pandemic takes another turn for the worse in the five weeks remaining before the election, Trump may struggle to shift the campaign to his preferred ground — including his nomination of conservative favorite Judge Amy Coney Barrett for a Supreme Court seat, his “law and order” campaign and claims Biden is a Trojan horse for a socialist takeover.
The President’s strategy took another blow when The New York Times reported on Sunday that he paid almost no taxes in 10 of the last 15 years in a report that explained his reluctance to be honest with American voters about his financial records.
While the tax question opened up another angle of attack for Biden, Democrats had already been testing a debate argument that links both the pandemic and the Barrett nomination, namely the survival of Obamacare. The law has become even more important amid the worst public health crisis in generations. But it is also again vulnerable, since the Supreme Court, possibly including the newly installed Barrett if she is confirmed by then, will consider the administration’s suit to invalidate Obamacare the week after the election.
“This relentless obsession with overturning the Affordable Care Act — driven entirely by a blind rage toward President Obama — is happening at a moment when our country is suffering through the ravages of a pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives,” Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, said Monday, previewing one potential debate assault.
“Complications from Covid-19, like lung scarring and heart damage, could well become the next preexisting condition,” Harris said.
Had Trump only taken the virus more seriously — and won better marks from voters — he might be in a position to close out Biden’s challenge to his bid for a second term on Tuesday night.
In the event, however, he is running behind the former vice president in most of the key swing states and in national polls after apparently putting his own political goals ahead of a full-bore attack on the virus. He therefore needs to produce a momentum-changing moment on Tuesday night.