Donald Trump on Monday launched a three-week quest to save his presidency, behaving as though the pandemic that has killed 215,000 Americans was already a memory in front of a packed-in crowd — even amid chilling new warnings about the resurgent virus.
In his first rally since his own bout with Covid-19, Trump painted a deeply dishonest picture of the nation’s battle with the disease, mocked Biden over social distancing and vowed victory on November 3 as he began a frantic push to Election Day, marked by multiple rallies a day that could act as superspreader events.
“I feel so powerful, I’ll walk into that audience. I’ll walk in there, I’ll kiss everyone in that audience,” Trump said in Sanford, Florida, showing his illness did not teach him to respect his own government’s pandemic guidelines. “I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women and the — everybody. I’ll just give everybody a big, fat kiss.”
The President’s return to the campaign trail coincided with rising alarm among Republicans about Trump’s sliding poll numbers and after CNN reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently warned Democrats are “on fire.” Democratic nominee Joe Biden on Monday seized on the start of confirmation hearings from Trump’s Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett to warn that the GOP was ramming through the nomination in a last ditch bid to destroy the Affordable Care Act.
At his Florida rally, Trump fed off the large crowd’s energy during his hour-long performance and ran through his demagogic list of favored political attacks, from law and order to his false claims of voting irregularities. He took the stage hours after the White House physician said he posted negative Covid-19 tests in consecutive days.
“(Biden) may be the worst presidential candidate in history and I got him,” Trump said, despite a flurry of recent polls showing him down by double digits to the former vice president and trailing in most swing states.
Biden campaigned Monday in Ohio, a state once seen as a sure fire bet for Trump that Democrats think is now in play, and synchronized his message with Capitol Hill colleagues using the Barrett nomination to supercharge claims that she would be a vessel to finally kill off Obamacare, which faces its next date with destiny in the court a week after the election.
“In the middle of this pandemic, why do Republicans have time to hold a hearing on the Supreme Court instead of providing the significant economic need for localities?” Biden asked. “I’ll tell you why. It’s about finally getting his wish to wipe out the Affordable Care Act.”
Biden also rebuked Trump for his “reckless” conduct since his diagnosis, saying: “The longer Donald Trump is president the more reckless he seems to get.”
Trump says his crowds are ‘the real polls’
Taken in isolation, Trump’s rally looked like any other big campaign event three weeks before an Election Day. While some supporters wore masks behind him in the camera shot, many people in the big, outdoor crowd did not.
And despite presiding over a botched pandemic response, Trump claimed he had saved millions of lives. After turning his White House into a superspreader that caused multiple infections, the President also criticized Biden for holding socially distanced events in which attendees sit in designated circles.
“They only have the circles because that’s the only way they can fill up the room,” the President said, before gazing out at his own large and raucous crowd that contravenes every government recommendation on combating the virus and saying: “These are the real polls.”
But medical experts expressed despair at Trump’s decision to gather huge crowds during a worsening pandemic, ahead of a swing that Trump aides said Monday would involve multiple rallies each day in the coming weeks.
“I promise you, the virus is there, whether it is an indoor event or an outdoor event in these large gatherings,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of health policy and preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University on CNN’s Erin Burnett “OutFront,” who added that the images of Trump’s rally made him “weep.”
“Some of those people will become sick, they will spread it to others when they get home and they will become sick. These are accelerator events that promote the distribution of the virus,” Schaffner said.
Trump’s mockery of his own government’s recommendations — his rallies are almost the only mass participation events taking place in the world right now — came amid fast darkening warnings about the months ahead.
The government’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warned that rallies like the one Trump held on Monday night are “asking for trouble.”
“Because when you look at what is going on in the United States, it is really very troublesome,” Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Later, Fauci delivered an even more dire warning about a pandemic that is seeing rising cases in 31 one states as a fall spike — that is effectively being ignored by a negligent White House — begins to gather pace.
“I think we’re facing a whole lot of trouble,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, referring to coronavirus infections which have recently climbed back above 50,000 a day.
“That’s a bad place to be when you’re going into the cooler weather of the fall and the colder weather of the winter,” Fauci said.
US doing worse that other nations in virus deaths
Trump’s claim to have saved millions of lives is based on the presumption that there would have been many more deaths had no counter-measures been taken against the disease — a scenario no one was seriously advocating.
New research on Monday exposed the President’s misinformation and showed in staggering clarity how the US has done far worse than many other industrialized nations in saving lives during the pandemic. After May 10, the US had more deaths per 100,000 people than other high mortality countries featured in a study published in the medical journal JAMA.
Countries including South Korea, Japan and Australia recorded fewer than five deaths per 100,000 people. If the US had comparable death rates to Australia since the beginning of the pandemic, it would have had 187,661 fewer deaths, according to the study conducted by Alyssa Bilinski, a PhD candidate at Harvard University, and Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost of global initiatives and professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
If the US had comparable death rates to Canada it would have had 117,622 fewer deaths. And it would have recorded 96,763 fewer deaths if it had comparable death rates to France.
GOP alarm over Trump’s prospects
In the CNN Poll of Polls on Monday, Biden led Trump by 11 points. Fresh New York Times/Siena surveys in battlegrounds Michigan and Wisconsin released Monday showed the Democrat up 6 points and 10 points, respectively.
Trump is hoping to use his return to the campaign trail to portray himself as triumphing over Covid-19 and to solidify his assurances to Americans there is nothing to fear from the disease, despite its rising nationwide threat.
The President — who has rarely tried to reach beyond his political base — is counting on a massive turnout not just from his 2016 supporters but also from new working class white voters who identify with him culturally but who have rarely cast a vote in previous elections. Trump’s rally on Monday was for instance peppered with comments about the “Panhandle,” the portion of northern Florida where he performed especially strongly in 2016.
CNN White House reporter Kevin Liptak reported Monday that Trump is pressing his advisers to organize multiple rallies in the next few weeks as he tries to unleash a late wave of momentum to overhaul Biden.
The President is pining for two and three events a day — which in the circumstances could turn into multiple superspreader events — to revive the spirit of his push up to his shock victory over Hillary Clinton four years ago.
But there are signs that the GOP hierarchy in Washington is not seeing the similarities with 2016, with some seeing Trump’s antics, including a boorish performance at the first presidential debate, as giving Democrats a golden opportunity to grab both the White House and Senate.
McConnell delivered his warning about Democrats being “on fire” in a call with lobbyists recently, according to someone familiar with the remarks.
Senate Republicans who never expected to have a serious challenge, such as Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and Joni Ernst in Iowa, are at serious risk. Graham, who as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman is leading the Barrett hearings, is facing a challenger, Jaime Harrison, who just shattered the single quarter fundraising record for a Senate race with $57 million.
And Trump’s itinerary for later this week also indicates a campaign playing defense as he travels to Iowa, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — all states he won four years ago and where he is in danger of losing now.