Trump Continues to Deny Pandemic Surge Even as Covid-19 Spreads Among Mike Pence's Inner Circle

·9-min read

President Donald Trump continued to deny the nation's deepening Covid-19 crisis as he crisscrossed the country this weekend, even as news emerged that several aides to Vice President Mike Pence had been diagnosed with the virus in recent days.

Marc Short, Pence's 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 a staffer in Pence's office also tested positive for the virus in recent days.

But out on the campaign trail, Trump once again advanced the false claim that coronavirus infections are rising because the US has increased testing and chided reporters in Ohio for using the word "cases" -- arguing the phrase is meant to "scare people."

After the US hit a new daily record for coronavirus cases, Trump's dubious claims that the pandemic is "rounding the turn" stand in complete opposition to the facts — and his disconnection from reality gave former Vice President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama an opening Saturday to call out his denials.

Though Trump continues to project optimism nine days from Election Day, the campaign is still dominated by Covid-19 -- an area where he's gotten poor marks. The virus is still the most important issue to American voters, millions of whom are waiting for Congress to strike a stimulus deal that would provide emergency relief to unemployed workers and businesses that are struggling to hang on. But the two sides remain at an impasse as hopes for a deal in the near term fade.

View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling

Dueling rallies this weekend and the candidates' different approaches to campaigning throughout the summer have shown the stark contrast between their visions on how to tackle the pandemic. Indeed, despite Pence being in close contact with Short as recently as Friday, the vice president plans to continue campaigning. Late Saturday, the vice president's office released his schedule for Sunday, which includes more travel and remarks at a campaign rally in North Carolina.

That comes after Friday's total of more than 83,000 new Covid-19 infections, which easily topped the nation's previous record from July. Hospitalizations are also on the rise as health experts plead with Americans to step up preventative measures. But Trump refused to accept that reality this weekend.

"You know why there are so many cases? Because we test. Because we test more than any country in the world, nobody tests like us," Trump said, shortly after arriving in Ohio on Saturday for his second of three rallies. "Everybody uses the word 'cases'... Use the word 'case' because you're trying to scare people. Don't scare people. Don't scare people. The fact is, that we're doing very well."

Both Biden and Obama, who hit the campaign trail in Miami as his former vice president's most powerful surrogate, criticized Trump's lack of a strategy for halting the spread of the virus as the weather grows colder and more Americans head indoors.

In another fierce denunciation of Trump's leadership style, Obama argued that Trump "wants full credit for the economy he inherited and zero blame for the pandemic that he ignored. As a general rule this is not a person who likes to take responsibility for anything."

"Eight months into this pandemic, new cases are breaking records. Donald Trump isn't going to suddenly protect all of us. He can't even take the basic steps to protect himself," Obama said in Florida, a state he won twice where CNN's poll of polls currently shows Trump and Biden running even. "There's no sense that he's coming up with a new approach, with a new plan. He doesn't even acknowledge that there's a problem."

Biden also faulted Trump for downplaying the threat of the virus in February, noting recent New York Times reporting that members of the Trump administration gave allies on Wall Street a heads-up that the virus looked bad while minimizing the risks publicly.

"You know what's really sad about all this? The President knew back at the end of January how deadly this virus was, and he hid it from the country," Biden said Saturday in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.

"He didn't tell us, but they told his Wall Street friends. That's why they made so much money," Biden said. "Then he tried to claim that he didn't want to panic the American people. The American people don't panic. Donald Trump panicked. Folks, he still has no plan."

Noting the President's recurring theme that he speaks for the forgotten men and women of America, Biden criticized Trump for viewing the country through the lens of blue and red states when it comes to Covid-19.

"He got elected and he immediately forgot the forgotten man. Remember what Donald Trump said when Covid hit 200,000 deaths? He said if you take out the blue states with Democratic governors and just look at the red states with Republican governors, we're doing quite well. First of all that's not true," Biden said Saturday.

"Second, (why) the hell would the President say, 'I'm not going to do anything for Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin, Democratic states. I'm only going to help red states.' Where does this guy come from?" Biden said. "Look folks, I don't see the presidency that way. I don't see America that way. This has to change. And it will change with me."

Trump's self-centered delusion extended to the horse race this weekend, when he predicted "a red wave" in November up and down the ticket, despite Democrats being on track to gain seats in the House and Senate -- largely because the President has been such a drag on down-ballot Republicans. But the Washington Post reported that the President admitted to donors in Nashville Thursday that "the Senate is very tough," because, he said, there are some senators he refuses to help.

Obama points to Trump's character flaws

In the important battleground of Florida Saturday, Obama did a line-by-line takedown of Trump's character flaws and his bullying behavior, mocking the President for complaining about his press coverage and for walking out of an interview this past week with Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes."

"This President, he likes to act tough and talk tough," Obama said. "He thinks scowling and being mean is tough, and being rude is tough. But when '60 Minutes' and Lesley Stahl are too tough for you, you ain't all that tough. If you've got to walk out of a '60 Minutes' interview, then you're never going to stand up to a dictator."

Referencing some of Trump's recent comments that Obama, Hillary Clinton and members of the Biden family should all be thrown in jail, Obama also argued that America should not have a President "who threatens people with jail just for criticizing him."

"That's not normal behavior, Florida," Obama said. "You wouldn't tolerate it from a coworker. You wouldn't tolerate it from a high school principal. You wouldn't tolerate it from a coach. You wouldn't tolerate it from a family member. 'Florida Man' wouldn't even do this stuff," he said to laughter and honking from the drive-in audience at the Miami event. "Why are we accepting it from the President of the United States?" Obama said Trump's behavior has wide-ranging consequences for American society by emboldening "others to be mean, and cruel, and divisive, and racist."

Hopes dim for a stimulus as Democrats pin blame on Trump

In their back-to-back events on Saturday, Obama in Florida and Biden in Pennsylvania both argued that Trump should be spending more of his time trying to work with Congress to channel more emergency aid to the American people in the midst of rising poverty levels and economic uncertainty due to the pandemic.

Biden touted his plans for halting the spread of the virus through testing, tracing, a more robust distribution of personal protective equipment and national standards for schools and businesses to open safely. And he said he would prioritize "bringing together Republicans and Democrats to deliver relief to working families and schools and businesses."

"I'm not going to shut down the economy. I'm going to shut down the virus and build the economy," Biden said. "Folks, this is all within our power. We can build back better than before." During his Miami rally, Obama faulted Trump for failing to get a deal to "extend relief to the millions of families who can't pay the rent or put food on the table."

"The fact that he can't make that happen -- that he won't make that happen -- it's hard to understand, because it's not like it's his money. He barely pays income taxes," Obama said, alluding to New York Times reporting that Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes during his first year in the White House.

Trump, who did not speak at any length about the possibility of a Covid-19 relief package on Saturday, chose instead to emphasize positive news like the drop in the nation's mortality rate, due to enhanced treatments and better management of cases. And he touted the nation's fragile economic recovery -- claiming it would be jeopardized by a Biden presidency.

He told the Ohio crowd that Biden would "raise your taxes like crazy." The President argued the election is a choice between a "Trump super recovery" and a Biden depression, at times seizing on Biden's confusing comments about fracking, which came up during Thursday's debate.

As the President played clips of Biden talking about fracking at his own rallies Saturday, Biden responded. "Let me get something straight here in coal country," Biden said in Luzerne County. "I will not ban fracking, period. I will protect Pennsylvania jobs."

But despite the back-and-forth on the campaign trail about the economy, Americans are still waiting for real economic relief. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin needed to strike a deal within 48 hours if they wanted to pass a coronavirus stimulus relief package before Election Day. But that self-imposed deadline passed and talks faltered at the end of the week.

As CNN's Lauren Fox reported Friday, there was no indication that the legislative work needed to make the package a reality was happening as the week ended. Pelosi's spokesman Drew Hammill said Friday that the Speaker "remains hopeful that an agreement with the White House can be reached soon" and that Pelosi and Mnuchin would speak again "once additional progress is made" as committees and staff work through the weekend.