“We are not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” Sunday, arguing that “proper mitigation factors” like therapies and vaccines should be the priority.
The window into the administration’s thinking came as Trump spent the weekend constructing a giant confidence trick for voters, declaring the country was “rounding the corner beautifully” in the battle against Covid-19.
The latest signs that Trump is putting his political priorities ahead of his duty of care to the American people come as the President plans a frantic week of packed rallies that flout good social distancing practice.
Meadows sends shock waves through Washington
The extent to which the White House has all but given up fighting the pandemic — for instance, public briefings by top government scientists have disappeared — was made clear by Meadows.
Biden leapt on Meadows’ comments as he tries to make a case that Trump’s denial and downplaying of the greatest public health crisis in 100 years means he should be disqualified from serving a second term.
He said the White House chief of staff had “stunningly admitted this morning that the administration has given up on even trying to control this pandemic, that they’ve given up on their basic duty to protect the American people.
“This wasn’t a slip by Meadows, it was a candid acknowledgment of what President Trump’s strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis: to wave the white flag of defeat and hope that by ignoring it, the virus would simply go away. It hasn’t, and it won’t.”
The President and Pence — the head of the coronavirus task force — have consistently refused to model the social distancing and mask wearing that is the most effective way to cut infections until treatments and vaccines arrive.
On Sunday for instance, the President mixed with supporters who were unmasked and closely huddled together, offering fist bumps and signing “Make America Great Again” hats.
“Deaths are starting to rise again, and vaccines won’t be widely available until next year even in the best-case scenario. Everyone banding together to wear masks, for a limited time, will be the least costly way for society to weather a difficult winter,” Gottlieb wrote.
Pence an ‘essential worker’
Even as news broke of the multiple infections in the vice president’s office, the White House declared he was an “essential worker” — a designation normally reserved for first responders and front-line medical staff — and said he would go on with his campaign program.
Pence, who was wearing a mask, clapped and jogged up to his podium at an event in North Carolina Sunday, the latest attempt by Trump and his team to foster a false impression of normality as the crisis deepens every single day. He never brought up the infections among his inner circle, barely mentioning the virus at the rally.
But the virus is now rising in 35 states and is steady in 15. New infections rose past 80,000 cases on both Friday and Saturday, breaking previous single-day records. US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams cautioned Friday that hospitalizations are up in 75% of the jurisdictions across the country. Deaths will likely also soon start rising.
The utter disconnect between the fast worsening reality and the behavior of Trump and Pence prompted David Gergen, an adviser to presidents of both parties who was speaking on CNN, to condemn what he said was, “a President and a vice president putting their own peoples’ lives at risk to advance their own political good fortunes.”
Meadows’ statement also had troubling echoes for another expert.
“I hear a lot of herd immunity in that statement and that is horrifying,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a professor of Medicine at George Washington University, told CNN on Sunday.
“We can control the pandemic,” said Reiner, citing Washington, DC’s low incidence of the virus after earlier spikes and crediting mask wearing for the improved situation..
“What the chief of staff is saying is surrender. No, no, no, we get everyone to mask up — that is how we get the rates down.”
The responsibilities of leaders
The comments by Meadows caused awkward moments for several Republican senators, in town to advance the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to a final floor vote on Monday.
“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,” the second-ranking Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, told reporters.
“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.”
The other South Dakota senator, Mike Rounds, said the government should “definitely not” stop trying to control Covid-19. Indiana Republican Sen. Mike Braun advised throwing “the kitchen sink at getting the virus under control.”
The new cases of Covid-19 in the White House could not be closer to Pence.
Marc Short, his 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.
The event is due to take place at 9 p.m. ET, outside, a source familiar with the invitation told CNN.
But Trump’s quest for distractions simply underscored how he is ignoring the true and most dangerous adversary facing America — the pandemic that has buckled his false reelection narrative of a nation on the rebound and has left millions out of work. His frantic efforts to save his presidency lacked the focus of his populist, nationalist economic arguments in 2016 — and an opponent in Hillary Clinton, who he was conveniently able to cast as a villain for his outsider message.
Trump, in the middle of a grueling set of rallies after recovering from the virus, traveled to Erie, where he needs to outperform his strong 2016 showing to cut Biden’s current lead in Pennsylvania, potentially the pivotal 2020 swing state.
“You guys aren’t even open yet. What the hell is going on with your state?” Trump said at the rally, accusing Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf of keeping the commonwealth shut down for no reason. After reducing its case and death numbers from its initial bout with the virus early in the year, Pennsylvania is now seeing its cases of Covid-19 rise again, all across the state.
The Chinese account, the newspaper said, is controlled by Trump International Hotels Management and it paid $188,561 in taxes in the country from 2013 to 2015. Earlier Times disclosures have shown how the President has paid almost no US federal tax on his fortune for years. Trump insists he has paid millions to the Treasury.
Trump creates a scene during ’60 Minutes’ interview
Trump had spent the day performing antics that might appeal to his most loyal voters and provide fodder for conservative media but threaten to further alienate more moderate voters he needs to attract.
The President sat for a CBS “60 Minutes” interview — an age-old staple of campaigns — but sources said he walked out after 45 minutes and refused to complete a segment with Vice President Mike Pence. Soon afterward, Trump tweeted a gotcha photo of correspondent Stahl not wearing a mask in the White House.
A person familiar with the situation told CNN that the image from the tweet shows Stahl with her producers immediately after Trump had ended the interview, before she had gone back to get her personal belongings to put her mask back on. She had a mask on from the time she entered the White House and just before the interview began.
Then, in another sign of frivolity, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany sent out a photo of herself handing Stahl a thick book that she said listed all the President’s achievements on health care. Later, Trump, in a show of presidential whining, tweeted that he might release the interview before Sunday’s air date to prove what a “FAKE and BIASED interview is all about.”
The spectacle of a White House ambushing a TV reporter would be extraordinary in normal times, but it shows a profound lack of seriousness in the middle of a domestic crisis that has killed more than 220,000 Americans and as experts say an alarming rise in Covid infections may be a week away.
Trump demands action from Barr
Earlier, in a phone call to Fox News, the President called on Barr to open a preelection probe into his false claims that the former vice president is guilty of corruption in Ukraine — the country that Trump tried to coerce into interfering in the election to damage Biden in an abuse of power that got him impeached.
“We’ve gotta get the attorney general to act. He’s gotta act. And he’s gotta act fast,” Trump said in the interview. “This is major corruption and this has to be known about before the election.”
The demand was the latest indication of how Trump has no compunction about using the powers of his office — meant to be reserved for the American national interest — to try to damage his political foes in full public view.
He followed up Tuesday by tarnishing the apolitical reputation that Fauci has built in decades of service to six presidents.
“He’s a nice guy. The only thing I say is he’s a little bit, sometimes not a team player. But he is a Democrat and I think that he’s just fine,” Trump said.
Expert sees rapid escalation in Covid cases
Trump’s attacks on Fauci underscore his most intractable problem in his effort to finally settle on an attack that negatively defines Biden and could broaden the President’s appeal wider than the fervent support of his most faithful voters. Trump’s failure to properly manage the pandemic and his constant denial about its impact on American life means he is at a disadvantage on the issue that appears likely to define the election. Experts are now warning of a fast-worsening situation across almost the entire nation just at the moment the President wants to declare victory over the emergency.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, is predicting a swift escalation of infections, which have recently raced back to average around 50,000 a day.
“It’s going to be a difficult fall and winter. I think we’re about two or three weeks behind Europe — so we’re about a week away from starting to enter a period where we’re going to see a rapid acceleration in cases,” Gottlieb told CNBC’s Shepard Smith on Monday.
After several days of criticizing NBC’s Kristen Welker, who will moderate Thursday’s debate in Nashville, Trump is now grumbling about the decision by the presidential debate commission to mute the mics for a portion of the encounter after his boorish interruptions in the first debate.
“These are not good people. This commission — a lot of funny things go on with them,” he said on Fox.
“I think the whole thing is crazy.”
A source close to Biden told CNN that the Democratic nominee is getting ready for Trump to “bully and deflect” onstage and is preparing for him to go after his family as well.
Throughout this campaign cycle, Trump has tried and failed to disqualify Biden from the presidency. The veteran Democrat has proven remarkably resilient, and Tuesday was another case study in why, as it showed all the ways that the President is limiting his own potential appeal.
Biden has a clear path to 270
Another riotous day at the White House unfolded with Trump, who is desperate not to be the first President since George H.W. Bush ousted after a single term, trailing Biden in enough swing states to cost him the election.
In Pennsylvania, Biden averages 52% support to Trump’s 43% in polling conducted between September 20 and October 5. In both Wisconsin and Michigan, the averages show Biden with 51% and Trump with 43%.
Trump’s hopes in Pennsylvania took a further blow with Monday night’s Supreme Court decision that means mail-in ballots — mostly preferred by Democrats — can be counted in the Keystone State for up to three days after Election Day on November 3. He called the decision “ridiculous” and “very strange.”
Across multiple states, voters are not waiting until November 3 to make their choices. Early voting records are tumbling everywhere.
More than 675,000 absentee ballots have been returned in Ohio, nearly double the figure at the same point four years ago.
More than 2 million voters have already cast ballots in North Carolina, a state where Trump tried to raise doubts about the legitimacy of early voting.
More than 27% of registered voters have already cast their ballots in Texas, and New Hampshire has seen nearly double the number of absentee ballots returned in all of 2016.
It is not possible to deduce exactly which candidate may have the advantage in early voting. The eagerness of voters to make their choices does reflect strong support for democracy even in the most extreme circumstances. And it makes one thing clear: The election is beginning to be decided right now, and the capacity of either candidate to change its dynamics is increasingly limited.
Still, Trump is putting his hopes in the kind of late surge that helped him beat Clinton in 2016 and is scheduling a flurry of swing state rallies to try to build momentum, even though the events will put his supporters — and people they will later meet — at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19.
CNN’s MJ Lee and Rick Davis contributed to this story.
The problem with their town halls, which were drastically different in tone and substance: Americans could only pick one to watch.
Trump’s alternate reality
Trump claimed the science is still out on wearing masks, despite the universal view of health experts — including within his own administration — that it can mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
He refused to say whether or not he believed Democrats were running a satanic pedophile ring, shrugging when pressed and saying only, “I have no idea.”
He claimed with no evidence that ballots with his name on them had been found in garbage cans.
And he would not affirm that a conspiratorial tweet he retweeted claiming Osama Bin Laden is still alive is false, saying, “People can decide for themselves.”
“I don’t get that,” moderator Savannah Guthrie said after that last equivocation. “You’re the President, not somebody’s crazy uncle.”
Contained within Trump’s regular venues of conservative television and Twitter, the upside-down world in which he exists sometimes loses its impact. But in front of everyday voters, his answers appeared wildly detached from any accepted version of reality. Voters deciding between Trump and Biden find themselves choosing less between two candidates than two entirely opposite planets.
Trump vs. Guthrie
Since leaving the hospital, Trump has been dialing into friendly outlets to recount his ordeal and trash Biden. Over the past week, he’s phoned Fox News or Fox Business five times, along with chats on Newsmax and Rush Limbaugh.
The warmth of a conservative safe space is where Trump has thrived for most of his presidency. When he emerged onto NBC’s set, things felt much colder.
A lawyer by training, Guthrie would not let up when Trump evaded questions about his coronavirus diagnosis, whether he was tested the day of the last debate, his stance on white supremacy, his views on QAnon or his view of mail-in voting.
Trump was conducting a town hall instead of a debate by choice; he pulled out of a second face-off with Biden when the Commission on Presidential Debates insisted it be virtual. But the result was 20 minutes of contentious live grilling with only himself in the spotlight — a rarity for a President who sticks mostly to a friends in conservative media.
Without a rival on the stage, Trump was alone in fielding the questions. And he had no opponent to pepper with his own attacks. Instead, Trump found himself on the defensive and increasingly angry — including scoffing at a question Guthrie asked by calling her “cute.”
It’s the type of performance some of Trump’s advisers had hoped to avoid, recognizing it is that type of behavior that has turned off women voters and senior citizens. During one of the commercial breaks, Trump’s strategic communications director Alyssa Farah came out and spoke to Guthrie before joining other aides to speak with the President.
Trump appeared more moderated when answering questions from the town hall participants. But the ease of conducting four years of friendly interviews became clear when it came time for his final question: Why should voters give him a second term? Instead of laying out what he’d do differently, Trump listed only what he’d accomplished so far and concluded with: “Next year is going to be better than ever before.”
Biden’s policy-focused contrast
The contrast between the candidates’ approaches and their town halls’ topics was dramatic — especially when confronted with controversial remarks they’d made in the past.
“Besides ‘you ain’t Black,” the man asked, how could Biden convince Black voters to take part “in a system that has failed to protect them?”
Instead of addressing his controversial remark, Biden delved into a several-minutes-long litany of policy specifics aimed at helping Black people. On his list: Tripling Title I funding for low-income schools; helping first-time homebuyers with a $15,000 credit for downpayments so that low-income families can begin to build wealth; $70 billion in new funding for historically Black colleges and universities; and government-backed loans for young Black entrepreneurs.
Asked if he’d heard enough, the young man responded, “Uh, I think so.” Then Biden offered to continue their conversation after the town hall ended.
It was one of a number of long-winded answers from Biden on Thursday night, and underscored Biden’s style and his efforts to use the town hall to focus on how his plans would affect ordinary Americans. It’s the implicit contrast Biden has long sought to offer voters: Sobriety in the face of Trump’s bombast, and a connection to the concerns of low- and middle-income Americans who he says have been ignored by Trump.
Trump campaign senior adviser Mercedes Schlapp tweeted during Biden’s town hall that watching it “feels like I am watching an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood.” That was exactly the tone Biden was aiming for.
Biden’s position on court-packing ‘depends’
Biden didn’t clarify his position Thursday night on the push by some progressives to add seats to the Supreme Court — but he said he would do so before the election.
Pressed on an issue he has largely ducked since Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat of the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Biden said he is “not a fan” of court-packing, but whether he ultimately changes his mind “depends on how this turns out” and “if there’s actually real, live debate on the floor” of the Senate about Barrett’s confirmation.
If that does not take place and Republicans rush to confirm Barrett before the election, he said, “I’m open to considering what happens from that point on.”
Biden said he would take a clearer position on court-packing before the election, after seeing how the confirmation process plays out.
But he also said he was hesitant to take a specific position at this stage because he wants attention to focus on what confirming Barrett and handing conservatives a 6-3 Supreme Court majority would mean for abortion rights, health care, LGBTQ rights and more.
“If I answer the question directly, then all the focus will be on, what’s Biden going to do if he wins, instead of if it is appropriate what is going on now,” Biden said. “This is a thing the President loves to do, which is always take our eye off the ball.”
Some coronavirus clarity
Ever since Trump entered Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, two of the persistent unanswered questions about his diagnosis have been what his lung imaging showed and whether he tested negative ahead of the first presidential debate.
His physician, Dr. Sean Conley, repeatedly refused to say when pressed directly, saying it was a matter of patient confidentiality. Trump’s other aides have shrugged off the testing question, claiming they didn’t want to look backwards.
Pressed Thursday on the same issues, Trump was similarly evasive. But his non-answers were telling.
Asked directly if he was diagnosed with pneumonia, Trump said no — but acknowledged his lungs had been affected.
“They said the lungs are a little bit different, a little bit perhaps infected,” he said. It was the first acknowledgment, beyond revealing he’d required supplemental oxygen, that the President’s lungs had been impacted.
Trump claimed he “didn’t do too much asking” and that he “didn’t have much of a problem with the lungs,” but added that “obviously I felt there was something missing.”
Asked later when his last negative test was before his Covid diagnosis, Trump tried to avoid the question, saying he was tested very often. But he was pressed on if he tested negative on the day of the first presidential debate, to which he responded: “I don’t know, I don’t even remember.”
His answer affirmed what sources have told CNN: that the testing regimen long touted by the White House as their main coronavirus mitigation measure wasn’t nearly as extensive as they claimed.
There was a chance for a strategic pivot by the President after he contracted Covid-19 that would have helped him shore up his flagging approval ratings on the handling of the virus. After learning a great deal about coronavirus, as he claimed during his stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he could have chosen a path of responsibility by using his platform to educate the public about the risks of the virus at a time when US cases are surging and doctors fear that the nation is entering a second wave.
Rather than mitigating risk, Trump is planning at least three campaign rallies next week in Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa, stating Saturday, “We are starting very, very big with our rallies and with our everything” as he again threw caution to the wind.
The President continued downplaying Covid-19 on Saturday, referring to it with his racist language as the “China virus” and claiming the US will “defeat it,” a day after he falsely claimed the experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail that he received from Regeneron was “a cure.”
“Science, medicine will eradicate the ‘China virus’ once and for all,” Trump said Saturday, noting flare-ups in Europe and Canada, but not mentioning the rising number of cases in the United States. “A lot of flareups, but it’s going to disappear, it is disappearing and vaccines are going to help.”
Trump’s physician, Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley, said in a memo about the President’s health Saturday evening that he is “now at day 10 from symptom onset, fever-free for well over 24 hours and all symptoms improved.”
“The assortment of advanced diagnostic tests obtained reveal there is no longer evidence of actively replicating virus,” Conley said, but he did not explain what “advanced diagnostic tests” the President received. And the White House still will not say when Trump last tested negative before he announced his positive diagnosis early on October 2, which is important context for knowing when he was contagious.
Conley has in the past seemed willing to bend to the political desires of a President eager not to appear ill and to quickly return to the trail. This latest White House memo, coming just ahead of his planned rallies, continues to be opaque with the medical details about Trump’s condition, leaving many questions about Trump’s current condition unanswered.
Alarming US coronavirus trends
While the White House says the President’s health is improving, doctors and public health officials are alarmed by the recent rise in Covid-19 cases, a trend that could accelerate as more Americans move indoors and the weather grows colder.
“We are all seeing increasing numbers of Covid-19 patients who are coming into our ERs, who are getting really sick, requiring hospitalization and even intensive care,” Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician with Brown Emergency Medicine, told CNN’s Erica Hill on “Newsroom” Saturday. “We are all deeply afraid that this is the beginning of that dreaded second wave.”
When asked Saturday whether Trump should be resuming campaign rallies, Democratic nominee Joe Biden said the President should make “clear he is not a spreader, like Dr. (Anthony) Fauci said,” referring to a recent statement from the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that Trump’s Rose Garden ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett, his Supreme Court nominee, was clearly a “super spreader.”
“Secondly, I think it’s important that he makes it clear to all the people they should be socially distanced,” Biden said on the tarmac in Delaware as he headed to a campaign event in Erie, Pennsylvania. “They should be on the lawn, that’s fine, but in fact, they should be socially distanced and wearing masks — that’s the only responsible thing to do.”
More deadlock on stimulus negotiations
As Trump heads back out on the campaign trail, attention in the Capitol this week will shift to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Barrett, who would solidify a 6-3 conservative majority on the court, and whether there is any hope of Congress reaching a deal on stimulus negotiations to help the millions of Americans who are struggling financially due to the pandemic.
“I would like to see a bigger stimulus package frankly than either the Democrats or Republicans are offering,” Trump said during his appearance on Limbaugh’s show after signing off on the $1.8 trillion proposal.
In a memo to her Democratic colleagues Saturday, Pelosi said the new proposal amounted to “one step forward, two steps back,” claiming that when the President talks about wanting a bigger relief package “his proposal appears to mean that he wants more money at his discretion to grant or withhold, rather than agreeing on language prescribing how we honor our workers, crush the virus and put money in the pockets of workers.”
She said the funding in the proposal for state and local governments, who are struggling with huge coronavirus-related costs, “remains sadly inadequate,” and cited other disagreements like Democrats’ desire for stronger OSHA protections for workers and Republican demands for liability provisions to protect businesses.
But not all Democrats were pleased with Pelosi’s decision to balk at the latest White House offer. Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang argued that another infusion of direct relief for unemployed workers is an overdue “lifeline for millions of Americans.”
“It’s infuriating that it’s October and so many Americans are still waiting on a relief bill that should have been passed months ago. If I’m Nancy Pelosi, I take this deal. If I’m Mitch McConnell, I take this deal,” Yang told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Saturday on “The Situation Room.”
“I have no idea why this is not being passed. Instead, they’re grandstanding and playing politics while people are hurting,” Yang said. “So again, Nancy Pelosi and Congress please, I know you don’t love President Trump, but the American people need relief. And this is a good deal for millions of Americans.”
A least 10 people in President Donald Trump’s family, the US government and circle of advisers and recent contacts have recently tested positive for Covid-19.
“I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work,” the President told reporters, before pivoting again by saying “the problem is on the left.”
His comments on the Proud Boys display how his instinct when cornered is to fight back harder, intensify personal attacks and aim the punches farther below the belt. Such an approach worked well in 2016, when he was an outsider who appreciated the potential for a populist, insurgent campaign when no one else did.
It is far from clear that an antagonistic approach is a good fit for 2020, when Trump is an incumbent President and the country is locked in multiple crises. Those aggressive reflexes are one reason why the President’s handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people has been so poor. And they mean that any advice from Trump’s aides to torque back his demeanor ahead of the next debate in Miami on October 15 will either fall on deaf ears or be ignored in the heat of battle.
The next encounter also brings the added risk of a President not used to being challenged exploding at a member of the public in a town hall format on live TV.
Republican senators, suffering through one of hundreds of awkward on-the-spot moments of the Trump presidency, were particularly discomforted by questions about the President’s “stand back and stand by” order to the Proud Boys. Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-South Dakota, suggested it was a statement the Trump team needed to “clear up.”
Even Donald Trump Jr. allowed on CBS News that his father’s comment at the debate could have been a “misspeak.” But the Proud Boys were in no doubt about where Trump stands, turning his comment into a new online logo.
Massive stakes for 2nd debate
The overwhelming consensus that Trump bombed in his first debate means the stakes for the second one are now even more astronomical than they were on Tuesday night. He will need a game-changer moment, with only three weeks left in the campaign. But he might have already missed his best chance.
Typically, the first debate garners the biggest TV audience. Further, by mid-October, millions more voters will have cast early ballots, and if current trends hold, a building new wave of Covid-19 infections will be having a demonstrably more serious impact on American life. Such a scenario will underscore the President’s failure on Tuesday night to offer any authentic plans to conquer the pandemic and may deepen his vulnerability on health care, which offered Biden a clear opening.
Debates are not always an accurate measure of who wins presidential elections. Democratic nominees John Kerry and Hillary Clinton were generally judged to have won their debates but they lost the elections. Trump’s destructive behavior likely appealed to those voters who prize him as a slayer of Washington elites and scourge of political correctness.
But if the misgivings inside his camp are on the button, the President probably did little in Cleveland to chip away at Biden’s advantage in most swing state polls. He might have even weakened his own position, as many voters saw in real time on their televisions the full extent of the boorish behavior that is familiar to Trump Cabinet members, foreign leaders and journalists who cover him.
If the President went into the evening needing to win back suburban voters and non-college-educated female voters, his tantrums and extreme rhetoric on race and refusals to guarantee ceding power, even if he loses the election, seem to have been guaranteed to secure exactly the opposite outcome.
Worse, from Trump’s point of view, his fury several times drowned out slips or uncertainty by Biden on the debate stage — including the former vice president’s inability to give a straight answer when asked whether he favored liberal demands for Supreme Court packing following Trump’s trio of picks to the nation’s top bench.
Compared with recent Democratic nominees, Biden wasn’t particularly impressive at the debate — albeit that he was trying to operate with constant haranguing from the man across the stage. But he didn’t have to be.
The President’s behavior meant that the sound bites from the debate being played on TV on Wednesday mostly referenced the President’s rage rather than Biden’s wobbly answers. Given that every day in the campaign is now crucial for a President who is behind, that was a small disaster in itself.
Biden was able to give the impression that he was the candidate with momentum heading out of the first clash, playing into what he saw as public distaste with the President’s performance.
“I kind of thought at one point, maybe I should’ve said this, but the President of the United States conducting himself the way he did — I think it was just a national embarrassment,” Biden told CNN’s Arlette Saenz on Wednesday.
Can Pence throw Trump a lifeline?
It’s going to be hard for the President’s political advisers to convince him that he has a problem. From the start of his presidency, Trump has existed in a bubble of praise from conservative news anchors and traded in the conspiracy theories that they amplify on shows he ravenously watches.
That helps to explain why the President came out with his normal rally punch lines in front of a far more diverse audience in the debate, mocking the use of masks, claiming he had saved millions of lives with his botched pandemic management and flinging unproven allegations about Biden’s son Hunter.
“I thought the debate last night was great. We got tremendous reviews on it,” the President told reporters on Wednesday. This may be typical Trump bravado. But it doesn’t suggest the kind of humility and the capacity for self-criticism that allowed Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama to bounce back from disastrous first debates in their own reelection races.
Trump has occasionally had teleprompter-driven moments in which he has behaved in a more statesmanlike manner. But such efforts have largely been confined to set-piece events like the State of the Union address. It is when the President gets off the teleprompter and his confrontational impulses are unrestrained — as in the debate situation on Tuesday — that he torches scripts and plans drawn up by aides.
The crucial point is that Trump doesn’t care. His actions show how he has long used the presidency as a channel for his personal grievances and to express how he feels, at any moment.
Pence, a smooth debater, is likely to make a far more conventional case for Trump’s second term than the President himself managed. Pence will detail what the administration sees as its main achievements: a conservative Supreme Court majority, multiple judges installed on lower benches, trade deals with Mexico and Canada, a reordering of US foreign policy and an economy that was prospering until the pandemic hit earlier this year.
The vice president will probably avoid unseemly personal attacks on Harris but will attempt to forensically exploit her liberal voting record to portray their ticket as the “Trojan horse” for the left that Trump believes it to be. The California Democrat is unlikely to be aiming her jabs at Pence and is expected to bring the inquisitorial skills that made her a renowned prosecutor to bear against the President himself.
If that’s the case, the President will go into his second debate with Biden under even more pressure than he faced in the first. He will need a Hail Mary moment to turn around the campaign with Election Day fast approaching. As Tuesday night shows, that’s not a scenario in which he seems to prosper.
In conversations with some senior Republican allies on the Hill, the White House is indicating that Barrett, a federal appellate judge and Notre Dame law professor, is the intended nominee, multiple sources said.
All sources cautioned that until it is announced by the President, there is always the possibility that Trump makes a last-minute change but the expectation is Barrett is the choice. He is scheduled to make the announcement on Saturday afternoon.
A former law clerk to the late right-wing beacon Justice Antonin Scalia, Barrett would tilt the balance of power on the court further to the right, possibly ahead of a consequential case on health care to be argued the week after Election Day. If her Senate confirmation is successful before the November election, the appointment would mark Trump’s third Supreme Court pick in one presidential term, cementing a conservative stronghold in the court for a generation.
Barrett was seen at her South Bend, Indiana, home on Friday. It was not clear if Barrett had been told she is the choice. Often that is done as late as possible to maintain secrecy around the announcement.
“The machinery is in motion,” one of the sources said. In previous nomination announcements, the White House had multiple rollouts planned in case the President made a last-minute decision to switch to another candidate. But one source said it would be surprising if there were a change since allies are already being told.
The White House declined to comment.
“She was the plan all along. She’s the most distinguished and qualified by traditional measures. She has the strongest support among the legal conservatives who have dedicated their lives to the court. She will contribute most to the court’s jurisprudence in the years and decades to come,” according to a former senior administration official familiar with the process.
The mother of seven children, Barrett, now 48, was confirmed in 2017 for her current judgeship on the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Born in New Orleans in 1972 and a 1997 Notre Dame law graduate, Barrett worked in private practice and then became a law professor, settling at Notre Dame in 2002.
Advocates on the right have backed her possible nomination because of her writings on faith and the law. Religious conservatives were especially energized for Barrett when, during her 2017 confirmation, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California suggested to her that the “dogma lives loudly within you.” Barrett supporters believed the nominee was being disparaged for her Catholicism.
The President indicated he has spoken to multiple candidates, but the White House has not been willing to say if other conversations were in person.
Barrett was at the White House on Monday and Tuesday of this week. She impressed the President and others during the initial meetings, two sources told CNN earlier this week.
This story has been updated with additional biographical details about Barrett.
Joan Biskupic and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this story.
But McConnell turned his back on his own made-up rule with a Republican in the White House. This Republican hypocrisy led to an absurd spectacle on Sunday talk shows of lawmakers and officials trying to explain away their own disingenuousness. The GOP will not care, however, since this pick will likely enshrine a decades-long conservative majority with the capacity to shape vast areas of American life — from voting and gender rights to environmental regulation and big business matters. The court could also become a thorn in the side of future Democratic presidents.
Trump reveled in his opportunity to nominate his third Supreme Court Justice at a rally in North Carolina on Saturday night. “It will be a woman, a very talented, very brilliant woman,” Trump said. “I haven’t chosen yet, but we have numerous women on the list.”
Biden seized on McConnell’s gall in an effort to make the case that Republicans who won the presidency despite losing the popular vote are embarked on an extreme power grab and must be reined in.
“Don’t go there,” Biden said Sunday, directly appealing to GOP senators. “Uphold your constitutional duty, your conscience, let the people speak. Cool the flames that have been engulfing our country. We can’t keep rewriting history.”
The exact dynamics inside the Senate GOP will become more clear later this week as the chamber returns to work and members gather for their policy lunch.
Worsening pandemic complicates Trump’s reelection push
The President pivoted forcefully to the new Supreme Court battle after a week when he became increasingly desperate to deflect from the pandemic, which included misleading and often false accounts, for example, of the speed with which Americans can expect to see a vaccine needed to end the disaster.
Trump’s hopes of talking about anything but the pandemic look slim given the worsening situation. The number of new Covid-19 cases has increased by at least 10% in 31 states over the last week, according to data Sunday from Johns Hopkins University. The test positivity rate — the percentage of new test results that are positive — is rising in 25 states, according to the Covid Tracking Project, fulfilling the fears of experts who warned of a post-Labor Day spike.
Republicans deny claims of hypocrisy
While large crowds of mourners gathered at the Supreme Court to pay tribute to Ginsburg, the White House was embarking on an aggressive plan to put her replacement — and a 6-3 conservative majority — in place.
“Today, we sit here 44 days out from election, so it’s certainly possible,” he said, referring to the chances of getting a new justice on the bench by November 3.”But I think that the President’s obligation is to make the nomination. We will leave the timetable to Leader McConnell.”
Republican senators blew past accusations of hypocrisy when asked about the tactics of McConnell, who has made reshaping the federal judiciary the priority of his leadership of the Senate.
If the Republicans cannot ram through a vote before the election, it could lead to a massive political conflagration should Democrats win the presidency and take back the Senate, then have to watch as a new justice is confirmed in a lame duck session by McConnell.
Such possibilities are making for some treacherous politics for both sides ahead of the election.
Trump, for example, is clearly hoping that a Supreme Court fight will supercharge his political base and send an overwhelming wave of conservatives into polling places. But there is also the chance that the Supreme Court battle could backfire on the President. It could boost liberal turnout among voters who fear, for example, that the new conservative majority will seek to limit or even outlaw the right to an abortion. A prolonged fight over this issue ahead of the election may further weaken Trump’s already compromised position among suburban women voters.
“You can’t keep a democracy if there’s one set of rules for one group and another set for everybody else,” Clinton said.
It was an unusual moment of exposure for a leader who demands constant public praise from his subordinates. On Tuesday night, audience members granted him the respect due to his office but none of the adulation he craves.
Answers that normally draw wild cheers at Trump’s packed campaign events fell flat when he was confronted by voters who appeared to want to cut through bluster and propaganda. And his responses did little to recognize the magnitude of the challenges facing the nation in a fearful year, suggesting that the President has yet to find the language or the appeals that might turn around an election he so far seems to be losing.
He said he did a “tremendous” job on the virus, insisted “it’s going to disappear” and that “a lot of people think masks are not good.” Asked who said masks aren’t good, Trump replied, “Waiters.” He bizarrely said “herd mentality” would make it go away, in an apparent reference to herd immunity that medical experts say could cost several million lives. The President has pounced on Biden’s verbal slips as evidence that he lacks the mental capacity to be President. But his own confusing answers after six months supposedly leading the national effort to fight the pandemic failed to inspire confidence that he fully understands the implications of the emergency even now.
He also illogically complained that Biden, who has no power, had not followed through on a national mask mandate and claimed falsely the US response to the crisis was the best in the world. And the President denied any blame for how the pandemic has turned out — placing the entire responsibility on China, where the virus first emerged, and several times complained he is not getting the credit he deserves.
At the end of the night, the President was asked by a voter named Ashley West to cite the most difficult part of his presidency and asked what he had learned from it — and in a way that seemed jarring given that the 200,000th American will soon die from the disease, the President reflected on his own personal sense of loss.
“I learned that life is very fragile. I knew people that were powerful people, strong people, good people, and they got knocked out by this, and died. Six people. It was five until about two weeks ago. Now, it’s six,” Trump said.
Trump defends himself
The President became most exercised when denying reports that he referred to US war dead as “losers” and “suckers,” calling them “fake.” He made halting attempts to show empathy to a new US citizen from the Dominican Republic who lost her mother to breast cancer complications a month ago and asked him a question about immigration. Trump responded by telling her that it was terrible that people died alone in hospital due to Covid-19 — and turned the answer into an infomercial for his pandemic leadership. Biden, who has buried a first wife and two children in a life marked by tragedy, is highlighting his own empathy as a balm for the country at a grief-wracked moment.
Trump shrugged off questioners who asked him if he agreed America needed to reexamine its painful history on race, again arguing that there were a few “bad apples” in the police force who “choked” in incidents in which unarmed Black Americans were killed.
The President also falsely claimed that Democrats wanted to remove protections for patients with pre-existing conditions introduced under Obamacare. His own administration is currently arguing a Supreme Court case trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act, while Democrats seek to preserve the law. While Trump says he would protect pre-existing conditions, he has offered no credible health plan.
The President’s appearance came in a crucial swing state at a moment when he is trailing Biden by nine points in the CNN Poll of Polls as the country faces concurrent crises: a pandemic, the consequent economic crash, a racial reckoning and historic fires in Western states.
Trump’s campaign insists untapped seams of pro-Trump voters who sat on the sidelines in 2016 are being ignored by pollsters and will embrace the President’s hardline culture war rhetoric to sweep him to a second term.
Trump again denies evidence of his own voice
The town hall event exactly seven weeks before Election Day was a reminder of the kind of chaos, falsehoods and divisiveness that is a selling point for the President’s most faithful voters but is the kind of behavior that may prompt an undecided voter to turn away.
The stream of lies and alternative realities that the President promoted recalled a statement attributed to former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in Woodward’s book “Rage” that was published on Tuesday.
“To him a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie,” Coats is quoted as saying to former Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Such commentary was borne out when Trump responded to a question by a first time voter from Pittsburgh who asked why he was captured on tapes made by Woodward as downplaying the pandemic.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t downplay it. I, actually, in many ways, I up-played it, in terms of action,” he said.
In essence, the President is inviting voters to refuse to believe the evidence of their own ears on his early attitude to the worst domestic crisis since World War II that has now killed 195,000 Americans and pitched 30 million out of work.
He is implicitly arguing that not only does he not deserve any blame for a response that lags other industrialized nations — the US has 4% of the world’s population and more than 20% of the Covid-19 cases and deaths.
But such a view relies on an interpretation that distorts the traditional sense that the buck stops on the Oval Office desk and instead relies on voters to believe a flagrant act of salesmanship that defies the reality of their own lives.
After Trump told Fox News earlier Tuesday that he had read Woodward’s book on Monday night, and found it “boring,” Woodward said that the President was living in an “Orwellian world.”
“He was told, he knew, he told me about it,” the veteran reporter told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“I don’t know, to be honest, whether he’s got it straight in his head what is real and what is unreal.”
In one stunning moment, he said that if the Washington Post reporter, whose book “Rage” comes out Tuesday, was so concerned about what was said in their taped conversations, he should have gone to the “authorities” so they could prepare the country. Of course, under the Constitution, the President is the ultimate authority and whether Trump likes it, the buck stops with him for the pandemic and every other national crisis.
“I don’t want to jump up and down and start screaming death, death,” Trump said, after Vice President Mike Pence bizarrely suggested Trump’s negligence in fact typified a British propaganda campaign that was never widely used during the war and has become part of marketing kitsch in recent years: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
At his Michigan rally, Trump jumped on the metaphor, comparing himself to the wartime prime minister.
“We have to be calm. We don’t want to be crazed lunatics. … When Hitler was bombing London, Churchill, a great leader, would oftentimes go to a roof in London and speak. And he always spoke with calmness,” Trump said, mangling the history of Churchill’s late night trips to view the raids with his separate radio addresses to the British people.
Trump’s meanderings were not just evidence of his slim grasp of history. They were the latest sign of how he has shirked his duty and minimized the current emergency. On Thursday, for instance, he urged New York City to go much faster after it announced that restaurants could soon begin serving food inside at 25% capacity after long and painful months slowly reducing the once out-of-control epidemic.
At his evening rally, he called on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, to “open up” her state. He urged schools to reopen and called for Big Ten college football to come back, cherry picking science about the impact of the virus on kids and ignoring their potential to infect their elders who are more at risk of complications.
This was despite growing signs of the danger posed to teachers — three of whom recently died from Covid-19 complications. He disregarded 40,000 cases of Covid-19 already recorded in higher education with many institutions canceling football games and in-person classes. The administration has not furnished a national plan to help schools go back safely, other than US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on reopening. It has also threatened to defund schools that don’t get kids back in class.
Flying to Michigan to greet several thousand maskless supporters packed together exemplified his defiance of his own government’s guidelines for battling the pandemic. And Trump’s admission to Woodward that he knew the virus was transmitted through the air back in February is training fresh scrutiny on his decision to hold a string of rallies through February and early March.
The President’s latest positions mirror those he took at the beginning of the summer when he goaded supportive state governors to open up their economies and mocked mask wearing, thereby helping set off a disaster in the Sun Belt.
The impression then was the same as it is now: the President is desperate to restore at least an illusion of normality and to juice up the economy to boost his chances of reelection — ignoring the human cost of his actions.
“This is the single largest public health failure in the modern history of the United States, certainly, in the last hundred years,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University.
“And it happened because of the refusal by the White House to launch a national campaign and a national strategy against the virus. So it’s beyond upsetting,” Hotez told CNN’s “New Day.”
Trump’s explanation that he had not wanted to panic Americans by explaining the true threat from the virus also came under severe examination. “We could have had one-fifth the deaths we’ve have had, and part of this is a failure to communicate,” Tom Frieden, the former director of the CDC, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“We will pass 200,000 deaths in the beginning of October, by all estimates, and this is a number that is just almost inconceivable,” Frieden said.
“This is an enormous number of people dying and it’s tragic to recognize that if we just had a more organized, well-led response with clear communication, many of those deaths could have been avoided.”
Biden seizes chance to attack
The Woodward revelations, piled on top of previous evidence of Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, are likely to have a devastating impact on the President’s legacy. What is less certain less than eight weeks from Election Day is how they will affect his immediate political fortunes.
There is little chance that after nearly four years of scandals, dramas and outrages, Trump’s bond with his loyal voter base will be hurt.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn declined to comment since he had no “personal knowledge” of the President’s remarks — even though they are on tape and have been playing on television for two days.
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who’s facing a tough reelection, told CNN, “When you’re in a crisis situation, you have to inform people for their public health but you also don’t want to create hysteria.”
“And look what’s happened. Again, 190,000 dead and climbing. And what’s he doing now? He still has not moved.”
The explosion over the Woodward books comes just two weeks after a Republican National Convention that made Trump’s campaign strategy clear — avoid discussion of the pandemic at all costs.
But the grim and looming milestone of 200,000 US deaths from Covid-19 is likely to drown out the President’s message within days.
And with the first debate with Biden on September 29 fast approaching, time is dwindling for the President to get the campaign back onto ground he prefers.