LONDONDERRY, N.H. – The coronavirus has reached into the heart of the White House once more, little more than a week before Election Day, and the president's top aide says, “we're not going to control the pandemic.”
Officials on Sunday scoffed at the notion of dialing back in-person campaigning despite positive tests from several aides to Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the White House coronavirus task force.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, pressed to explain why the pandemic cannot be reined in, said, “Because it is a contagious virus just like the flu.” He told CNN's “State of the Union” that the government was focused on getting effective therapeutics and vaccines to market.
Pence, who tested negative Sunday, according to his office, held a rainy early evening rally in Kinston, North Carolina, a state Trump won in 2016 and is crucial to his reelection hopes. Meanwhile, the president held a rally in New Hampshire and visited an orchard in Levant, Maine, where he signed autographs and assured a crush of mostly unmasked supporters that a “red wave” was coming Nov. 3. He and first lady Melania Trump wrapped up the busy weekend by hosting costumed children for a socially distanced Halloween trick-or-treating on the White House grounds.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden attended church and planned to participate in a virtual get-out-the-vote concert at night. He said in a statement that Meadows was effectively waving “the white flag of defeat” and “a candid acknowledgment of what President Trump's strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis.”
In a brief exchange with reporters before the orchard visit, Trump demurred when asked if Pence should step off the campaign trail as a precaution. “You'd have to ask him,” Trump said.
The White House said none of the staff traveling with Trump on Sunday had been in close contact with any individuals in the vice president's office who had tested positive. But public health experts said Pence's decision to keep up in-person campaigning was flouting common sense.
Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University's law school, said Pence in his decision to forgoing quarantine was violating his own task force's recommendations.
“It's one standard for the vice president and another for all the rest of us,” he said.
Trump, campaigning in Londonderry, New Hampshire, said the rising rate of infections was nothing to be concerned about. “You know why we have cases so much?” Trump asked a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. “Because all we do is test.”
Entering the final full week before the Nov. 3 election, it's clear the Trump team remains committed to full-throttle campaigning. Trump himself has resumed a hectic schedule since recovering from his own recent coronavirus case, and planned to campaign today in Pennsylvania. Pence will campaign in Minnesota and return to North Carolina on Tuesday.
Despite the rising virus numbers, the White House says the U.S. economy needs to fully reopen and it has tried to counter Biden's criticism that Trump is not doing enough.
Trump and his aides again Sunday lashed out on Biden, falsely asserting Biden was determined to lock down the economy, while the president is centering his attention on getting therapies and vaccines to market.
“We want normal life to resume,” Trump said. “We just want normal life.”
Biden, in fact, has said he would only shut down the country if that is what government scientists advise. He has said that if elected he would make the case for why a national mask mandate might be necessary and would go to the governors to help increase Americans' mask-wearing.
Pence's office says there are no plans to curtail campaigning. In addition to chief of staff Marc Short, who tested positive Saturday, a “couple” of other aides also have also contracted the disease, Meadows said.
Even with Pence's latest negative test, symptoms, including fever, cough and fatigue, may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The White House says Pence was considered in “close contact” with Short under CDC guidelines. The guidelines require that essential workers exposed to someone with the coronavirus closely monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 and wear a mask whenever around other people.
After consulting with the White House Medical Unit, Pence intended to maintain his schedule “in accordance with the CDC guidelines for essential personnel,” said Devin O'Malley, a Pence spokesman.