President Donald Trump on Monday insisted that his administration was still working to curb the spread of the coronavirus, even as White House chief of staff Mark Meadows doubled down on his acknowledgment that the United States would not “control” the pandemic.
Speaking to reporters on the airport tarmac after arriving in Allentown, Pa., the president addressed the controversial remarks from his most senior aide, asserting that he had not given up on managing the highly contagious disease that has resulted in more than 225,000 American deaths.
“No, not at all. In fact, the opposite. Absolutely the opposite. We’ve done an incredible job,” Trump said on Monday morning, again claiming that the U.S. is “absolutely rounding the corner” despite the country setting a new single-day record of 83,010 coronavirus cases on Friday.
The conflicting messages from the White House came amid ongoing fallout from Meadows’ interview with CNN on Sunday, during which he said the U.S. was “not going to control the pandemic,” but would instead “control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas.”
The concession from Meadows — coupled with the news of another White House coronavirus outbreak among the staff of Vice President Mike Pence — was quickly condemned by congressional Democrats and some Republicans, as well as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign.
“This wasn’t a slip by Meadows,” Biden said in a statement on Sunday. “It was a candid acknowledgment 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. It hasn’t, and it won’t.”
Asked about Biden’s criticism on Monday, Trump said of his general election opponent: “He’s waved the white flag on life. He doesn’t leave his basement. This guy doesn’t leave his basement. He’s a pathetic candidate, I will tell you that.”
Biden is scheduled to campaign in Georgia on Tuesday, and is expected to visit other battlegrounds in the remaining eight days before Election Day.
Meadows also rejected Biden’s suggestion that the administration was waving a white flag in its fight against the coronavirus, but nevertheless repeated his seized-upon remarks from over the weekend.
“The only person waving a white flag, along with his white mask, is Joe Biden,” a maskless Meadows told reporters outside the White House on Monday morning. “I mean, when we look at this, we’re going to defeat the virus. We’re not going to control it. We will try to contain it as best we can.”
Meadows went on to argue that the “full context” of his earlier remarks referred to the “need to make sure that we have therapeutics and vaccines” to treat Covid-19. He also said that administration officials were “very hopeful, based on a number of conversations, that vaccines are just a few weeks away, and we’re in preparation for that.”
But public health experts have warned that a coronavirus vaccine likely will not be widely accessible until the second half of 2021. And even if a vaccine is authorized on a narrow basis for a subset of health care workers and vulnerable Americans, several leading candidates require two doses that would be administered weeks apart.
The late-stage phase three clinical trials for potential coronavirus vaccines enroll tens of thousands of participants and take months to complete. The first few candidates are not expected to file for emergency use until late November at the earliest.
“At the same time,” Meadows added on Monday, “a national lockdown strategy or a national quarantine strategy that is proposed by the left is not effective [and] is not what ultimately [will] contain or control this virus. So any suggestion that we’re waving … the white flag is certainly not in keeping with this president.”
Although Biden said in an August interview with ABC News that he would reinstate widespread lockdown orders if scientists recommended he do so as president, he clarified at a news conference last month that he meant he would simply “follow the science.” He also said there is “going to be no need, in my view, to … shut down the whole economy.”
Other high-ranking White House aides mobilized on Monday in an effort to explain the chief of staff’s remarks, with senior adviser Jared Kushner maintaining that the pandemic could not be thwarted by even the most restrictive public health measures.
“You have places where they’ve been locked down and it’s spread. You have places where it’s been open and it’s spread. And I think that, ultimately, we have to have a balanced approach,” Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, told Fox News.
Kushner echoed Meadows’ optimistic rhetoric about the timeline for a potential coronavirus vaccine, saying the U.S. has many candidates “that are very, very close to getting to the end of their trials ... that we believe will help us bring an end to the pandemic.”
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow also emphasized in a Fox News interview that the U.S. is “getting closer and closer to a vaccine,” while contending that Meadows was actually alluding to the importance of mitigation strategies in his remarks over the weekend.
“I think that’s where the chief was going,” he said.
David Lim and Sarah Owermohle contributed to this report.