USA

As Trump gaslights America about coronavirus, Republicans face a critical choice

Playing with fire at a time when public health experts say the spread of the virus appears to be spiraling out of control, Trump continued gaslighting Americans about the threat to their health during a Fourth of July speech from the South Lawn of the White House, where he minimized the dangers of Covid-19 with a baseless statement that 99% of coronavirus cases are "harmless," a claim his Food and Drug Administration chief could not back up Sunday morning.
With many Americans flouting public health guidelines during the holiday weekend, Trump's conduct is creating an inflection point for the GOP at a time when his poll numbers have tumbled. With American lives on the line, the question now is whether members of the Republican Party will continue to stand by in silence as the President peddles fiction about a deadly virus, and if so, will they pay a price at the ballot box in November.

While Republicans deserted Trump on the issue of facial coverings -- with many urging Americans to wear masks over the past week -- they have been mostly silent about Trump's effort to deceive the public about the risks the virus poses.

Trump spent the weekend raging about protecting statues of American heroes with racist pasts while setting an irresponsible example as the virus spreads. This time GOP silence could become complicity, jeopardizing public health and safety, as well as American lives.

"I think the President is stepping forward," GOP Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who faces a competitive reelection in November, told CNN's Dana Bash on "State of the Union" on Sunday when asked whether she thought Trump had exhibited "failed leadership" on coronavirus, as she criticized former President Barack Obama on Ebola in 2014.

The President's falling poll numbers, particularly in swing states in his matchup against former Vice President Joe Biden, are now an area of intense concern for Republicans, and many longtime GOP strategists are puzzled by his dual strategy of ignoring the virus while trying to incite race wars.

A majority of Americans do not approve of Trump's handling of the pandemic (or his response to the nation's racial reckoning), which has stirred consternation even in his own campaign as the President banks on an economic revival and good news about a vaccine to restore his political fortunes.

But Trump waded even deeper this weekend into his controversial campaign strategy of trying to distract from the virus with race-baiting rhetoric. At Mount Rushmore on Friday, Trump described protesters as a left-wing fascist mob that is trying to "end America" by erasing the nation's history and indoctrinating its children. On Saturday night at the White House, he compared his attempt to defeat "the radical left" to the efforts by the United States to eradicate the Nazis.

While Friday's and Saturday's speeches marked new heights in terms of inflammatory language from the President, many Republicans have long been uncomfortable with Trump's penchant for falling back on culture war tropes and racially incendiary language that he thinks stirs fealty to him within his base.

Late last month as Trump's poll numbers continued to sink over his handling of the protests, Senate Majority Whip John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, told CNN Trump was "good with his base," noting that the people who will "decide in November are the people in the middle."

Afraid to contradict the President on coronavirus

The President's view that the US has turned the corner on Covid-19 has also increasingly isolated him from key Republican leaders, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who are pleading with the public to wear masks and stay home. Yet the President's punitive nature -- and the long list of people he has fired or tweeted about negatively after they contradicted him -- still makes GOP elected officials and his own public health experts loathe to criticize or correct him.

An example of that dynamic came Sunday when CNN's Dana Bash repeatedly pressed US Food and Drug Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn to explain the President's false statement that 99% of coronavirus cases are "totally harmless."

"I'm not going to get into who is right and who is wrong," Hahn, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told Bash during CNN's "State of the Union" when she asked him to explain why the President made the claim when his public health experts have said exactly the opposite.

"What I'll say is that we have data in the White House task force. Those data show us that this is a serious problem. People need to take it seriously," the FDA chief said.

One exception was the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Gimenez, who contradicted the President Sunday as he finds his county in an difficult predicament: "The virus is not harmless. No, absolutely not," Gimenez said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation." Noting the positivity rate is around 20% in his area, he said that more Floridians need critical care.

"When you have more (cases), you obviously will have more hospitalizations, more ICUs, more respirators, and unfortunately, you'll have more fatalities," Gimenez said.

Meanwhile, Trump's former Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert tweeted the ominous message Sunday: "We are in trouble.... Once a state is over 1% prevalence, it becomes much harder to extinguish the flare up," Bossert tweeted. "It will take a huge effort to put out these outbreak fires. More than masks alone. We could top 500k US deaths this year if this trend continues."

More Trump rallies amid alarming signs of coronavirus spread

Though US coronavirus fatalities are down, there are few signs that the virus is going to disappear. The spike in patients overwhelmed some Texas hospitals as concerns grow about shrinking capacity in intensive care units. Florida set an all-time record for the most cases in a single day Saturday, surpassing the previous record set in New York in mid-April. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb warned Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation" that there's "no clear line of sight on how we're going to get this under control."

The political polarization of the virus, driven in no small part by conflicting messages from Trump and his public health experts, was in the spotlight over the holiday weekend.

Though coronavirus cases rose in 34 states over the previous week -- and 12 states recorded an increase in cases of more than 50%, according to John Hopkins University data -- beaches in some parts of the country were packed with people, while others were empty.

Weekend images emerged of partygoers dancing and shouting with no distancing at an event in Diamond Lake, Michigan, and closely packed crowds at a Wisconsin waterpark.

Cases are declining in three states -- Kentucky, Vermont and the swing state of New Hampshire, where the Trump campaign announced that the President will hold a campaign rally Saturday at Portsmouth International Airport, where the crowd will be in a hangar, with the overflow crowd outside. The campaign said that there will be ample access to hand sanitizer and all attendees will be provided a face mask "that they are strongly encouraged to wear."

But the concern is that the President's descriptions of an innocuous virus will lead his supporters to let their guard down about the virus. In direct contradiction to Trump's "totally harmless" assertion, the US case fatality rate from coronavirus stood at 4.6% this weekend, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The World Health Organization has said that 20% of all people who are diagnosed with coronavirus are sick enough to need oxygen or hospital care. And while the CDC estimates that a third of coronavirus cases are asymptomatic, that does not make the disease any less dangerous since people with mild or no symptoms can pass the virus on to others. As of Sunday, the death toll in America had surpassed 129,000 American lives.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a Democrat, told CNN's Boris Sanchez Sunday that the situation in Miami is "going to get much worse," and he said the disconnect between the reality on the ground and the President's message is making it much harder to force Floridians to heed the guidance of health experts.

"We're telling people to make sacrifices, to put on masks, to socially distance themselves from people they love, to make sacrifices for others," said Gelber, then "Friday night the President is hosting this huge event where none of those countermeasures were being followed. So how do we tell people to swallow very difficult medicine when the President, by his action and his words, is telling them they don't have to?"

A growing number of Americans also do not trust the President's information about the virus. Only 26% of registered voters trusted Trump to give accurate information about the coronavirus, according to last month's New York Times/Siena College poll, while about 77% of registered voters trusted the CDC.

It is not yet clear what damage that may inflict on Trump's fellow Republicans with the President on the top of the ticket in November — and whether they will continue to stand with him as his message becomes more dangerous.

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