Trump shrugs off COVID-19 surge

The White House is striking a dismissive and fatalistic tone toward the coronavirus in the closing days of a campaign that has been defined by the pandemic and as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations tick upward across the country.

The virus and Trump's handling of it have long been the Achilles' heel of the president’s bid for a second term. In the final week of the race, Trump and other administration officials have decided to press on with little urgency regarding a disease that has killed more than 220,000 people in the U.S.

Vice President Pence has maintained a busy travel schedule despite an outbreak among his staff, including two of his closest aides. Trump routinely tells rally crowds that the country is "rounding the turn," even as the U.S. sets records for daily infections. And White House chief of staff Mark Meadows conceded the country could not control the virus, but should instead focus on vaccines and therapeutics.

The president's closing message on the virus was on full display Monday. In a trio of early morning tweets, he complained that extensive media coverage of the pandemic should be "an election law violation."

Trump held three packed campaign rallies in Pennsylvania, where few supporters practiced social distancing and many did not wear face masks. Campaign staff have defended holding the rallies as a First Amendment right akin to protesting or gambling in casinos.

"It's ending anyway," Trump said in Allentown of the pandemic, one day after the U.S. set a record for new cases averaged over a seven-day period. "We're rounding the turn. It's ending anyway, but the vaccines are going to be incredible."

The president at his Monday rallies did not mention the increase in coronavirus-related hospitalizations, though he claimed on Twitter that cases were up because of widespread testing, an assertion experts have said is misleading.

The White House on Monday night hosted guests for a swearing-in ceremony for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, despite a gathering for her nomination one month ago being labeled a superspreader event after roughly a dozen attendees tested positive for COVID-19.

"My greatest worry is that the White house and the American people have just grown fatigued and are giving up on this pandemic, but the virus hasn’t given up on us," said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University.

"I think the tone from the top down has just been defeatist," he added.

The administration made clear this week that the need to shore up support on the campaign trail would take priority over virus concerns as Pence set out to North Carolina on Sunday and Minnesota on Monday for rallies just days after his chief of staff and a top political adviser tested positive.

Pence is considered a close contact of his chief of staff, Marc Short, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines advise that close contacts of someone with COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days. But the vice president's office has said Pence's work is essential, and he intends to press on with an aggressive campaign travel schedule.

The vice president, who leads the White House coronavirus task force, has for months held weekly conference calls with governors to provide updates on the pandemic response. But Pence has not participated the last two weeks, and it's unclear if he will hold a call this week.

The dismissive posture is at odds with public health experts and even some Republicans who are warning of the need for more stringent measures and public vigilance to avoid hospital overcrowding and a spike in deaths heading into the winter months.

Scott Gottlieb, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under Trump, wrote an op-ed published Sunday in The Wall Street Journal that argued in favor of imposing a national mask mandate, something Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has proposed but that Trump and White House officials have repeatedly dismissed out of hand as impractical and unnecessary.

"We need to maximize steps that are less intrusive now; so we can minimize those that are more disruptive later," Gottlieb tweeted.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) tweeted over the weekend that he was "deeply concerned COVID exhaustion is at an all-time high" even as his state set a record for cases in a single day.

The strategy of downplaying the virus so close to the election is a risky one for Trump, given polls have consistently shown that COVID-19 is an important issue for voters, the majority of whom disapprove of the president's handling of the pandemic.

Data analysis site FiveThirtyEight shows that, based on an average of polls, 57 percent of Americans disapprove of how Trump has handled the pandemic, compared to 40 percent who approve. The president's approval numbers on his response to the coronavirus have been underwater since early April, according to the site.

Biden, in stark contrast to Trump, has made a cautious and serious approach to the virus a hallmark of his campaign. The president frequently mocks Biden for wearing a mask and the setup of his campaign events, where attendees are distanced using large tape circles on the ground.

When staffers for vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris tested positive for the virus, she was pulled off the campaign trail briefly out of an abundance of caution.

"The bottom line is, Donald Trump is the worst possible president, the worst possible person to lead us through this pandemic," Biden said Monday.

Republicans and allies of the administration believe that many Americans are genuinely tired of enduring the restrictions associated with the pandemic and that Trump's message will resonate with them. But some acknowledge that the president would be better served leaving it to others to discuss the pandemic given the distrust in what Trump has said on the subject.

"The president should be focused on the economy and moving the country forward and making sure his team working on the vaccine has every asset possible," said Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser. "I think that's what is happening, but the messaging is getting in the way. The president has a tendency to always make it about him, and this is one story where he should let others take the spotlight."