President Trump refused again to promise he would accept the results of November’s presidential election and brushed aside public opinion polls that showed his standing with voters plummeting over his handling of the worsening coronavirus outbreak.
In an interview aired Sunday on Fox News, the president also boasted, inaccurately, that the United States had the “best” coronavirus mortality rate, asserted that the economy was rapidly bouncing back and denigrated the government’s top infectious-disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as the president's surrogates have done in recent days.
And as he did in 2016, Trump declined to guarantee that he would accept the election outcome, saying it was too soon.
“I have to see,” he told interviewer Chris Wallace. “I’m not going to just say 'yes.' I’m not going to say 'no,' and I didn’t last time either.”
Repeating a contention he has often made in recent weeks, the president said he believed that mail-in voting would "rig the election." Critics have said Trump is trying to delegitimize the vote in advance, fearing a loss, especially if the pandemic means that balloting by mail is more widely used than usual.
Trump's presumptive opponent, Joe Biden, often shrugs off the president's broadsides, but Biden aides offered an acerbic response to Trump's suggestion he might not leave office willingly if voters reject him.
“The American people will decide this election,” the Biden campaign said in a statement. “And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House."
Trump brushed aside the many national polls that show a big lead for Biden.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday indicates the former vice president has a double-digit advantage over Trump, leading 55% to 40% among registered voters. Wallace told Trump during the pretaped interview that a new Fox News poll also gave Biden the edge, showing a somewhat tighter, but still significant, lead of 49% to 41%.
Polls of major battleground states have shown a similar picture, with Biden leading in states including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Arizona.
“I’m not losing, because those are fake polls,” Trump declared, referring to the Washington Post and Fox surveys. At another point, he said: “I’m not a good loser. I don’t like to lose.”
Amid the surging coronavirus outbreak — which has claimed more than 140,000 American lives, with the rate of new cases at one point last week reaching 75,000 in a single day — Trump hailed his own performance, claiming that the United States has the “best mortality rate.”
Total U.S. confirmed COVID-19 deaths are the highest recorded for any country in the world, and the U.S. has the seventh-highest rate of fatalities for the size of its population, Wallace told him, citing widely used figures from Johns Hopkins University.
Asked about his repeated downplaying of the pandemic, including his prediction that the coronavirus would one day "just disappear," Trump refused to back down on his forecast.
"I'll be right eventually," he said. "You know I said, 'It's going to disappear.' I'll say it again…. It's going to disappear. And I'll be right."
Asked if he was being proved wrong in real time, with the case count increasing in 35 states, Trump replied, "I don't think so."
Public health experts, by contrast, offered bleak new assessments Sunday. Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, interviewed on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said hard-hit states such as California, Texas, Arizona and Florida could be two or three weeks away from their peaks and then could face an “extended plateau.”
Gottlieb also predicted new hot spots could emerge, pointing to worrisome signs in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky, among other states. He forecast “more trouble for the fall and winter,” when many experts have warned a ferocious second wave of the coronavirus could coincide with seasonal flu infections.
Amid an outcry from within the medical and scientific community over derogatory comments about Fauci made by members of his administration, the president described the infectious-disease specialist as "a little bit of an alarmist."
Trump surrogates including his trade advisor, Peter Navarro, have spoken scathingly of Fauci over the last week. Navarro wrote an op-ed a week ago in which he said the top scientist had been wrong about "everything."
The White House also circulated a list of talking points criticizing the 79-year-old head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. At the time, White House officials denied a report in the Los Angeles Times that Navarro had acted with Trump's approval.
In the Fox interview, Trump also pushed again for a full, in-person resumption of classroom instruction within weeks and again insinuated that positive cases among the young are not a problem, even though an asymptomatic infected person can spread the virus to many who are more vulnerable.
“Many of those cases are young people that would heal in a day,” Trump said.
Trump has consistently downplayed the nationwide increase in cases — blaming it on increased testing, which even many of his Republican allies have dismissed as false. He has also ignored the rapid increase in deaths in Arizona, Texas and other hard-hit states.
He's paid a steep political price: In both the Washington Post and Fox polls, voters increasingly disapproved of Trump's handling of the coronavirus. In the Post poll, voters disapproved by 60% to 38%, with the share approving of Trump's approach down sharply from the spring.
Republican and Democratic governors said Sunday that the fast-growing caseload signaled hard times on the near-term horizon.
“We could become Florida,” Ohio's Republican governor, Mike DeWine, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” referring to a raging outbreak in the Sunshine State.
Despite some Republican governors peeling away from Trump on the issue of facial coverings — in Arkansas, for example, Gov. Asa Hutchinson reversed himself and issued a masking mandate that takes effect Monday — Trump, who wore a mask in public for the first time only eight days ago, again sent mixed messages in the Fox interview.
He ruled out a national mandate, saying, “I want people to have a certain freedom.” But in almost the same breath, Trump asserted, “I’m a believer in masks — I think masks are good.”
Trump, whose erratic public utterances on the pandemic and other subjects have caused some critics to question his mental fitness, boasted recently of “acing” a cognitive-function test. In the Fox interview, he grew irritated when Wallace cited examples of questions on that test that a young child could easily answer.
“They have a picture, and it says, ‘What’s that?’ and it’s an elephant,” Wallace said.
“That’s all misrepresentation,” Trump retorted.