The US presidential campaign was roiled this weekend by a fresh outbreak of the novel coronavirus at the White House that infected at least five aides or advisers to Vice President Mike Pence that President Donald Trump’s top staffer acknowledged on Sunday (local time) he had sought to avoid disclosing to the public.
With the election just over a week away, the new White House outbreak highlighted the administration’s failure to contain the pandemic, as hospitalisations surge across much of the United States and daily new cases hit all-time highs.
The outbreak around Pence, who chairs the White House’s coronavirus task force, undermines the argument Trump has been making to voters that the country is “rounding the turn,” as the president put it at a rally Sunday in New Hampshire.
Further complicating Trump’s campaign-trail pitch was an extraordinary admission on Sunday from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that the administration had effectively given up on trying to slow the virus’s spread.
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“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows said on CNN’s State of the Union. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigations.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who regularly wears a mask on the campaign trail and strictly adheres to social distancing guidelines, sought to capitalise on the remark.
“This wasn’t a slip by Meadows; it was a candid acknowledgement 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,” Biden said in a statement. “It hasn’t, and it won’t.”
The outbreak in Pence’s orbit comes roughly three weeks after Trump was hospitalised with the virus and a number of his advisers tested positive. Officials said the new list of those infected includes the vice president’s chief of staff, Marc Short; his top outside political adviser, Marty Obst; his personal aide Zach Bauer, known as a “body man”, who accompanies him throughout his day; and two other staff members.
Pence has been in close contact with a number of those infected in recent days, but spokesman Devin O’Malley said the vice president and second lady Karen Pence tested negative for the virus on Saturday and Sunday, and have been “in good health”.
The vice president continued on Sunday with his heavy travel schedule, flying to North Carolina for an evening rally in Kinston. He told aides that he was determined to keep up his appearances through the week despite his potential exposure, irrespective of guidelines, officials said.
On Monday, Pence is expected to visit the Capitol to preside over the Senate vote to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, decried Pence’s plans to continue with his scheduled events. “God help us,” Schumer said in a speech on Sunday on the Senate floor.
O’Malley said Pence was cleared to travel in consultation with White House doctors. “While Vice President Pence is considered a close contact with Mr Short, in consultation with the White House Medical Unit, the Vice President will maintain his schedule in accordance with the CDC guidelines for essential personnel,” O’Malley said in a statement on Saturday night.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people stay home for 14 days after possible exposure and to maintain social distance at all times. The CDC allows an exemption for “critical infrastructure workers” who are not experiencing symptoms so long as they socially distance and cover their faces at all times.
Meadows defended the characterisation of Pence’s campaign activity as “essential” work, and said the vice president had assured him late on Saturday night that he would socially distance and wear a mask except for when he is delivering remarks.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien similarly defended Pence’s travel decision, claiming that the vice president was “following all the rules from the CDC”.
“Essential workers going out and campaigning and voting are about as essential as things we can do as Americans,” O’Brien told reporters on Sunday.
This is a marked contrast to how the Biden campaign dealt with recent infections among the travelling entourage of vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris. On October 15, the morning after two people in Harris’s orbit tested positive, the Biden campaign issued a lengthy statement identifying the individuals and detailing their contact with Senator Harris and other staffers, their activities in the days leading to their positive tests and the dates of Harris’s most recent negative tests.
Although Harris had not been in close contact with either person – as defined by the CDC at that time – she suspended her travel through that weekend.
When asked on Sunday about Pence’s decision to continue campaigning in person despite the fresh outbreak among his team, Harris told reporters, “He should be following the guidelines. We’re doing it. I think we have modelled the right and good behaviour, and they should take our lead.”
The latest outbreak underscored the absence of some basic health safety protocols at the White House and at Trump and Pence’s campaign events, where the two and their aides routinely flout CDC recommendations and state or local health guidelines. They do not wear masks with any regularity, nor do they practice social distancing. Aboard Air Force Two, where Pence and his team have spent considerable time in recent weeks jetting among campaign stops, officials often do not wear masks.
Meadows and Short have been among the more strident sceptics of coronavirus restrictions inside the administration, aides said, and have played down the threat of the virus and the push for health safety precautions in the White House.
The first member of Pence’s circle to be diagnosed with the virus was Obst, a longtime adviser who helps manage the vice president’s political affairs from outside the government. Obst tested positive on Tuesday, after flying aboard Air Force Two with Pence, according to two administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss internal deliberations.
Short, who tested positive for the virus on Saturday afternoon, has told other people that he believes he contracted it from Obst.
Bauer tested positive while in isolation, which the aide began on Tuesday after having close contact with Obst, one of the officials said. Two other people in Pence’s office also have tested positive.
Meadows tried to keep details about the infections within Pence’s orbit under wraps and opposed the vice president’s office releasing such information, according to two officials. It was not until Saturday evening that Short and Obst’s infections were reported by the media.
Meadows acknowledged in his CNN interview that he had sought to suppress information about the outbreak.
“Sharing personal information is not something that we should do, not something that we do actually do – unless it’s the vice president or the president or someone that’s very close to them where there’s people in harm’s way,” Meadows told anchor Jake Tapper.
New coronavirus cases in the United States reached an all-time high Friday, and hospitalisations have soared, surpassing the mark set during the summer as cases spiked across the Sun Belt in particular.
Cases this fall have been rising rapidly in a number of Republican-leaning states and counties, according a recent analysis of health data by Harvard University scientists.
Campaigning over the weekend, Trump tried to present an alternate reality. At a rally on Sunday in Londonderry, New Hampshire, Trump said the pandemic would soon end thanks to a potential vaccine, which he said was “going to be delivered fast”.
“That will quickly end the pandemic – it’s ending anyway,” Trump said. “We’re rounding the turn, but the vaccine will get it down fast, because we want normal life to resume. Normal life. We just want normal, normal life.”
Trump also had hoped to divert attention from the pandemic in his final stretch of campaigning, though the new outbreak at the White House could upend that strategy.
At a rally on Saturday in North Carolina – where scores of maskless attendees stood shoulder-to-shoulder – Trump played down the dangers of the virus and predicted that the media would stop covering the pandemic after Election Day.
“Turn on television: ‘covid, covid, covid, covid, covid.’ A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don’t talk about it – ‘covid, covid, covid, covid,'” Trump said. “By the way, on November 4th, you won’t hear about it anymore.”
The president was referring to a hypothetical plane crash. Far more than 500 people have been dying each day in the United States of the coronavirus.
In Arkansas, where the coronavirus infection rate and hospitalisations are on the rise, Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said Trump’s message about the country rounding the turn conflicts with the reality on the ground in Arkansas, which he described as “very concerning”.
“Everyone knows that we are going through a very difficult crisis and it’s going to likely get worse as we go into the winter,” Hutchinson said Sunday on CBS News’ Face the Nation.
Hutchinson also took issue with Trump’s reluctance to wear a mask or strongly endorse that others do so, despite saying he is OK with mask usage.
“It makes it confusing,” he told anchor Margaret Brennan. “I mean, he’s made it very clear that wearing a mask is important. I saw him wear a mask going into the polls yesterday, but obviously with the rallies, there is confusing messages there.”
Biden has made the pandemic the centrepiece of his campaign pitch and has tried to hammer Trump for mishandling the crisis.
“I told him at the debate, we’re not learning how to live with it. We’re learning how to die with it! And it’s wrong,” Biden said on Saturday at a drive-in rally in an outer-ring suburb of Philadelphia.
The event had all the markings of a Biden campaign event in this era, and was a visual contrast to Trump’s rallies. He spoke to rows of cars in the parking lot of Bucks County Community College, which allowed attendees to remain socially distanced. Biden and his wife, Jill, took the stage wearing masks but removed them at the lectern.
“I don’t like the idea of all this distance, but it’s necessary,” Biden said, as drivers honked in response. “What we don’t want to do is become super-spreaders.”
The Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.