With nine days to go, Trump faces two adversaries: Joe Biden and the pandemic

Janet Hook, Chris Megerian
·6 min read
President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Londonderry, N.H. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport on Sunday in Londonderry, N.H. (Associated Press)

With election day just nine days away, President Trump fought an uphill battle Sunday against two adversaries: Joe Biden and the pandemic.

Trump’s repeated claim that the country had turned the corner on the coronavirus was undercut by news that members of Vice President Mike Pence’s inner circle had tested positive — and by a senior Trump advisor who said the White House was "not going to control" the pandemic.

Pence, who had headed Trump's now-moribund coronavirus task force, did not quarantine but instead pressed on with campaign travel.

That turned the spotlight back on the issue that voters see as the president's biggest failure, playing straight into the hands of a Democratic rival whose campaign message centers on a critique of Trump's handling of the pandemic.

“It's sadly no surprise ...that this virus continues to rage unchecked across the country and even in the White House itself," Biden said in a statement. “The fact that the head of the White House's coronavirus task force has an outbreak in his office and yet still refuses to follow [federal] guidelines shows us exactly why.“

The outbreak comes less than a month after Trump spent three days in the hospital for COVID-19 in an earlier White House outbreak that also infected the first lady, their son Barron and more than a dozen aides and advisors.

In a sign of Biden’s political confidence in the waning days of the campaign, he plans to campaign Tuesday in Georgia — a state that until recently was safely Republican and is now rated a toss up.

And in New Hampshire, Biden won the endorsement of the state’s influential conservative newspaper, the Union Leader, just before the president arrived to hold an airport rally outside Manchester on Sunday.

“America faces many challenges and needs a president to build this country up,” said the paper, which endorsed Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson over Trump in 2016, in its first break from 100 years of GOP endorsements. “This appears to be outside of Mr. Trump’s skill set. Building this country up sits squarely within the skill set of Joseph Biden.”

Biden’s venture into Georgia could be an overreach, reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s attention to some GOP-leaning states late in 2016 and taking critical Democratic-leaning states like Wisconsin for granted.

Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield brushed off those concerns in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday and said Biden is going to Warm Springs, home of former President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Little White House,” to give a “major message speech” about unifying the country, bringing his closing argument to an historic setting.

The president, meanwhile, is trying to regain his grip on states he won four years ago with a fast-paced schedule of campaign rallies. On Monday and Tuesday alone, he is due to hold six rallies across Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

New Hampshire was one of the few states Clinton won in 2016 that Trump hoped to flip, but he has been trailing in polls by double digits.

After his Manchester rally Sunday, Trump flew to Bangor, Maine, in a bid to hold onto a single electoral college vote that he won in 2016 in the state, which allocates some of its electoral college votes by congressional district.

Even in the face of the coronavirus outbreak on Pence’s staff and a U.S. caseload and COVID-19 death toll setting records by the day, Trump still downplayed the severity of the pandemic in his New Hampshire rally.

"We are coming around,” he said. “ We are rounding the turn. Even without the vaccines, we're rounding the turn."

So far this year, more than 225,000 people have died of COVID-19 across the United States, with no end in sight. Over the past week, more than 800 people died each day on average.

Health professionals warn that a third wave of infections appears underway as people spend more time indoors. Nearly 42,000 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Saturday.

The number of positive coronavirus cases also is rising far faster than the number of tests being conducted, a sign that infections are outpacing testing. Nearly 83,000 cases were confirmed on Saturday. That was just short of a pandemic-high record set on Friday at 85,000 cases.

Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, is one of five Pence staffers who tested positive for the coronavirus, but Pence’s office declined to identify them or confirm how many other than Short were infected. Robert C. O'Brien, the president's national security advisor, told reporters Short has mild symptoms.

Although Pence had been in “close contact” with Short, according to criteria set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he tested negative, according to the White House.

Pence did not alter his packed campaign travel schedule, including a trip to North Carolina late Sunday, even though a 14-day quarantine is generally recommended after close contact. Pence is scheduled to campaign Monday in Minnesota, and Tuesday in North and South Carolina.

White House officials defended his decision to travel, claiming that Pence’s campaigning fell under a CDC exemption from quarantine requirements granted to “essential workers.”

Asked during a CNN interview why the White House was not taking more precautions to control spread of the virus, Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows said: “We're not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas. It is a contagious virus. Just like the flu, it's contagious.”

Biden called Meadow’s comment a stunning admission that reflected the administration’s cavalier approach.

“This wasn't a slip by Meadows,” Biden said. “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. It hasn't, and it won't."

The White House handling of the outbreak contrasts with the Biden campaign’s response after two people on vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’ campaign plane — her communications director and a flight crew member — tested positive several weeks ago.

Even though Harris tested negative and had not been in close contact with the two infected individuals, she immediately cancelled her in-person events for several days.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.