The coronavirus pandemic moved to the centre of the US election again on Friday, as a former senior official on the White House taskforce turned on Donald Trump.
Trump was alleged by Olivia Troye, a former Mike Pence adviser, to have called his own supporters “disgusting people” with whom he no longer had to shake hands thanks to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Joe Biden told voters late on Thursday that they should “listen to the scientists, not to the president” when it comes to hopes for a vaccine.
The death toll from Covid-19 in the US is approaching 200,000. The election is on 3 November, less than 50 days away.
Trailing Biden in national and most swing state polls and in polls regarding who the public trusts to handle the pandemic, Trump has claimed a vaccine will be available “within weeks”. That stance contradicts statements from senior health advisers, who the president in turn has publicly doubted.
At a CNN-hosted town hall event in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden said: “I don’t trust the president on vaccines. I trust Dr [Anthony] Fauci [the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases]. If Fauci says a vaccine is safe, I’d take the vaccine. We should listen to the scientists, not to the president.”
Troye, a one-time member of the Covid taskforce who left the administration in the summer, on Thursday came out with a blistering video in support of Republican Voters Against Trump, a conservative group backing Biden.
“Towards the middle of February, we knew it wasn’t a matter of if Covid would become a big pandemic here in the United States,” Troye said, echoing Trump’s own statements in taped interviews with Bob Woodward for the Washington Post reporter’s new book, Rage.
“It was a matter of when. But the president didn’t want to hear that because his biggest concern was that we were in an election here, and how is this going to affect what he considered to be his record of success. It was shocking to see the president saying that the virus was a hoax, saying that everything’s OK, when we know that’s not the truth.”
Trump continues to hold campaign events with scant regard for state guidelines on social distancing and masks. As Biden spoke in Pennsylvania on Thursday, the president staged a rally in another swing state, Wisconsin, where Covid infections are surging. In Mosinee, temperature checks were required and hand sanitizer was passed out. But masks were optional.
Troye said that at one taskforce meeting, “the president said, ‘Maybe this Covid thing is a good thing. I don’t like like shaking hands with people, I don’t have to shake hands with these disgusting people.’
“Those disgusting people are the same people that he claims to care about,” Troye said. “These are the people still going to his rallies today, who have complete faith in who he is. If the president had taken this virus seriously, or if he had actually made an effort to tell how serious it was, he would have slowed the virus spread. He would have saved lives.”
Rises in Covid infections – such as that which led to the death of former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who attended a rally in Tulsa in June – have been linked to Trump events. But in Misonee, one rally-goer at least wasn’t too worried.
“I think a lot of it is made up,” Lori Cates told the Guardian. “It’s a ploy to take away from [Trump’s] success.”
The Trump administration effort to find a vaccine labours under the name Operation Warp Speed.
After Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Robert Redfield told the Senate on Wednesday it would be about a year before a vaccine was “generally available” – and called masks “the most important, powerful public health tool we have” – Trump said Redfield was “confused”.
On Thursday, Fauci sought to plot a middle course, telling a Washington DC radio station, WTop, “in many respects, they were both right.”
Troye spoke to the New Yorker shortly before her video was released. “What I’m really concerned about,” she said, “is if they rush this vaccine and pressure people and get something out because they want to save the election.”
The president has also pushed therapeutics of dubious utility and blamed the “deep state” for what he deems slow progress at agencies such as the federal Food and Drug Administration.
The “deep state” conspiracy theory holds that a permanent government of bureaucrats and operatives exists to thwart Trump’s agenda. Former Trump campaign manager and White House strategist Steve Bannon, a key propagator, has said the theory is “for nutcases” and “none of this is true”.
Concern over political meddling in public health agencies has been ever-present under the pandemic. Last weekend, Politico reported that Trump appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services sought to change key reports because they “would undermine the president’s optimistic messages about the outbreak”.
On Friday, the New York Times reported that a key set of CDC guidelines for who should be tested for coronavirus was published over the strong objection of agency scientists.