‘We’re Not Going to Control the Pandemic,’ Trump’s Chief of Staff Says
President Donald Trump’s chief of staff said the U.S. is “not going to control” the pandemic even as he defended the White House response to the coronavirus after infections of close aides to Vice President Mike Pence.
Mark Meadows’ comment, that the U.S. response will be focused on vaccines and treatments, not containment, became a flashpoint for critics.
In a statement, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said the remark “wasn’t a slip.”
“Meadows stunningly admitted this morning that the administration has given up on even trying to control this pandemic, that they’ve given up on their basic duty to protect the American people,” Biden said.
Meadows spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union,” hours after news late Saturday that Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, and Marty Obst, a close adviser, had tested positive.
Another member of Pence’s staff has also been diagnosed with the virus in recent days, according to people familiar with the matter, though the White House hasn’t released the person’s name.
Asked why the diagnoses hadn’t been publicly revealed by the White House, Meadows said “it’s personal information” and that “it’s not something we usually do, unless it’s the vice president or the president, or someone that’s very close to them, where there’s people in harm’s way.”
“Any time that there’s someone in harm’s way, we have an obligation to let people know that, to contact trace,” he said.
Pence, leader of the White House coronavirus task force, tested negative on Sunday. He’ll continue to campaign for Trump’s re-election, according to a statement from the vice president’s office late Saturday. It said Pence was considered “essential personnel” under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Challenged on CNN about the “essential” designation -- it’s a term used mostly for people like police, first responders, and food workers -- Meadows said Pence was “not just campaigning, he’s working.” Pence wears a mask more often than Trump, but takes it off when speaking in public.
“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows said. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas.”
“We are making efforts to contain it,” Meadows said, even as U.S. cases hit record daily levels. “It is a contagious virus.”
Asked about Meadows’ comment, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said on CBS that flattening the curve of the virus and protecting the most vulnerable should be the focus -- not much different from the approach taken months ago.
“Ultimately, the only thing that is going to stop this virus will be a vaccine,” said O’Brien, a task force member who tested positive for the coronavirus in July. “We’re on track to have a vaccine for Americans in less than a year.”
Short, a former White House director of legislative affairs, is Pence’s top aide, a constant presence at his side who frequently acts as a spokesman for the vice president. In the statement, Pence’s office acknowledged that he’s considered a close contact of Short under infection-tracing procedures.
Short, 50, is having “mild symptoms” of Covid-19 so far, O’Brien said. He added that Pence, in continuing to travel, is “following all the rules.”
Pence traveled to Florida to deliver a campaign speech in Tallahassee on Saturday evening after learning of Short’s diagnosis, according to people familiar with the matter. Short, who tested positive earlier in the day, didn’t accompany him.
Pence is next scheduled to campaign on Sunday in Kinston, North Carolina.
“He was cleared by the doctors to travel,” Meadows said Sunday outside the White House’s West Wing.
Coronavirus has swept through the White House since September, infecting Trump, his wife and youngest son, and a number of top aides, including his campaign manager, his press secretary, and the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. The outbreak has served as a punctuation mark on Trump’s handling of the pandemic, which polls show has been widely panned by voters.
The U.S. is now experiencing yet another surge of infections, with new cases exceeding 83,000 on Friday, a record. It extended the increase with a new high of 85,317 infections a day later. More than 8.6 million Americans have contracted the virus so far and the death toll now exceeds 225,000.
“Even without the vaccines, we’re rounding the turn,” Trump said Sunday at a campaign event in New Hampshire. “It’s going to be over.”
In contrast, Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s first commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Sunday that the U.S. has reached a “dangerous tipping point.”
“There’s really no backstop here. I don’t see forceful policy intervention happening any time soon,” Gottlieb, who departed the FDA in 2019, said on CBS.
The infections of Short and Obst -- as well as Pence’s exposure -- risk overshadowing the closing week of Trump’s re-election campaign. Trump has repeatedly said in recent days that the country is turning a corner on the pandemic, even with a spike in infections.
“The bottom line is we have to be vigilant, we have to be careful, we have to be everything, but we also have to get our lives back,” the president said on Saturday at a rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “We have to take our country back. It’s going away, it’s rounding the turn.”
Trump acknowledged Short’s infection as he exited Air Force One early Sunday. “I did hear about it just now, and I think he’s quarantining,” the president told reporters. “He’s going to be fine but he’s quarantining”
Obst isn’t a government employee, but is frequently in contact with Pence and his staff and often visits the White House grounds. He was last around Pence about a week ago but wasn’t in close proximity to the vice president, two of the people said.
Short and Obst declined to comment.
Another Trump ally, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, was hospitalized with Covid-19 after helping the president prepare for his first debate with Biden last month. Since recovering, Christie has issued a public mea culpa, declaring he was wrong not to wear a mask at the White House and urging Americans to follow the guidance of public health authorities.
Trump has seldom worn a mask before or after his illness and discourages it among his aides and people around him. The president wore a mask on Saturday when he voted in Florida.
Pence, after avoiding the West Wing during the outbreak that sickened the president, was in the building last week.
On Saturday, the vice president was photographed wearing a mask as he walked from Marine Two and boarded Air Force Two in Washington. He didn’t wear a mask during events in Lakeland or Tallahassee but was alone on stage. U.S. Secret Service agents around him wore masks.
The CDC recommends that “essential personnel” wear a mask at all times in their workplaces for 14 days following exposure to someone infected with coronavirus and maintain social distancing, to the extent practicable.
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