Gone are the days when Donald Trump held forth daily at the White House podium flanked by members of his coronavirus task force. And the days when VP Mike Pence and other task force officials would head to Trump’s office to brief him immediately after their meetings.
The White House won’t say when Trump last met with the task force.
In the week since he emerged from coronavirus isolation, Trump has demonstrated new determination to minimise the threat of the virus that has killed more than 215,000 Americans and complicated his chances of winning another four years in the White House.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is near. We are rounding the turn,” he told supporters on Friday at an event in Fort Myers, Florida, one of many moments during a week of campaigning when the president tried to play down the virus threat.
“Don’t listen to the cynics and angry partisans and pessimists,” he said.
He is pushing an optimistic outlook even as public health officials are raising alarm that the infection rate in the US is climbing toward a new peak.
In the last week, he has spread misinformation about the virus, undercut the nation’s leading infectious disease expert and kept up his practice of shunning mask use.
The effort to diminish the virus has gone into overdrive as Democrats try to frame the race for the White House as a referendum on Trump’s handling of the worst US public health crisis in over a century.
The US economy is still roughly 11 million jobs short of recovering all 22 million jobs that were lost when the pandemic struck in early spring. The country averaged more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases per day over the last week. National and battleground public opinion polls suggest that Trump faces stiff headwinds in his bid for a second term.
At his NBC News town hall on Thursday night, Trump was asked whether he should have known better than to announce his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court with a Rose Garden ceremony and indoor reception where few guests wore masks and social distancing was non-existent.
He responded by incorrectly citing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study to falsely suggest that mask wearing doesn’t mitigate the spread of the virus. The study did not say that.
Trump also has been guarded in releasing information about his health and wouldn’t say whether he had tested negative on the day of his first debate with Joe Biden, two days prior to his positive diagnosis, allowing only: “Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t”. After Melania Trump revealed last week that their son, Barron, had tested positive, Trump used his child’s health scare and recovery to try to make the case that the virus is no big deal for young people.
“It happens. People have it, and it goes,” Trump told a rally in Iowa. “Get the kids back to school.”
Earlier in the week, Trump undermined the top US infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, who has at times contradicted the president’s commentary about the virus.
“He’s a nice guy so I keep him around, right?” Trump mused at a rally in North Carolina, adding of the studiously non-partisan Fauci: “He’s a Democrat… He’s [New York governor] Cuomo’s friend.”
While campaigning, Trump and his team often go without masks, a return to the status quo for a president who earlier in the crisis suggested that some people wore masks just to signal their disapproval of him.
In one striking moment last week, senior adviser Hope Hicks returned to campaigning with Trump more than two weeks after she tested positive for the virus. Hicks, the president and other aides climbed aboard Maine One wearing no masks.
Trump defends his decision to go maskless by saying that doctors tell him he isn’t shedding virus anymore and he remains “immune” for at least four months.
Public health experts say that by refusing to wear masks, Trump and his advisers are missing an opportunity to model behaviour that is essential to keep the public safe.
© Associated Press