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Trump's new pitch: I know virus better than Biden because he didn't get it

President Donald Trump, still contagious with the coronavirus,

President Donald Trump, still contagious with the coronavirus, takes off his mask after returning to the White House from a military hospital. Credit: The Washington Post / Jabin Botsford

Yeah, Trump got it

More than anything else, President Donald Trump's management of the coronavirus pandemic has weighed down his reelection prospects. Now he seems to be calculating that catching the disease gives him a chance to turn that around.

On Sunday, Trump said in a video from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center: "I learned a lot about COVID … I get it." So did his hospitalization bring about an epiphany about his approach to the virus that has killed 210,000 Americans and claims hundreds more lives each day? Apparently not.

On Monday, it became clear that Trump is doubling down on playing it down — his modus operandi all along. "Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge," he tweeted before leaving the hospital to recuperate from the White House.

That not-to-worry message helps him politically how? A campaign spokeswoman, Erin Perrine, laid it out on Fox News Monday morning. "He has experience now fighting the coronavirus as an individual. Those firsthand experiences, Joe Biden, he doesn't have those," Perrine said. "Those firsthand experiences are what are going to get President Trump four more years."

It is a true fact that Biden, repeatedly mocked by Trump and his minions for mask-wearing and social distancing, hasn't caught the virus as far as we know, although he keeps getting tested after sharing the stage with Trump at last Tuesday night's debate. Trump, less respectful of such precautions, has presided over an outbreak that infected not only himself but his wife, top aides, household staff, political allies and others who had the misfortune to be in their presence.

It doesn't appear that Trump's self-justifications will quickly catch on. Two-thirds of Americans say Trump handled the risk of coronavirus infection to others around him irresponsibly, according to a new CNN poll. Disapproval of his handling of the pandemic stood at a new high in the survey — 60% — and 63% doubted Trump's personal experience will change anything about his approach.

Even a top Republican senator sympathetic to Trump's reopening aims couldn't defend the president's behavior. "I think he let his guard down," Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told the Houston Chronicle, "and I think in his desire to try to demonstrate that we are somehow coming out of this and that the danger is not still with us — I think he got out over his skis and frankly, I think it’s a lesson to all of us that we need to exercise self-discipline." Cornyn said Trump "tries to balance [his rhetoric by] saying, 'Well, you know, we got this.' And clearly we don't have this."

Still sick, stages spectacle

Trump's doctors got out of his way so he could leave Walter Reed and helicopter back to the White House on Monday evening. The president had been warned he risked a setback that could land him back in the hospital, and the medical team, while saying he was improved, didn't send him off with a clean bill of health.

Though Trump said, "I feel better than I did 20 years ago," the White House physician, Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley, said the president would not be fully "out of the woods" for at least another week. He said Trump's condition allows a return to a home where "he will be surrounded by world-class medical care 24/7."

Trump got off the helicopter, ascended stairs to a portico balcony overlooking the South Lawn, removed his mask and stood there for two minutes while the cameras clicked. Aides had arranged American flags for the sunset scene. He appeared to some observers to be breathing hard. (See video here.) The mask still was off when he went inside, where aides were visible milling about the Blue Room. Then he came out to make more video.

Conley said doctors were in "uncharted territory" because Trump had received certain aggressive therapies so early in the course of the illness. Their patient also remains contagious, but Conley declined to describe what specific steps would be made to ensure safety for others at the White House. New CDC guidance issued Monday said that airborne coronavirus particles can linger "for minutes to hours" — even among people more than 6 feet apart.

Conley declined to answer repeated questions about when the president had his last negative test — critical information for those who had been exposed to him, and to support or debunk Trump's past claims of getting tested every day. He also refused to give information about Trump's lung scans or whether there were signs of pneumonia.

Conley said he didn't see any evidence of mental side effects from the drugs Trump is taking. He said, "I think you've seen the videos, and now the tweets … You know, uh, he's — he's back. Yeah."

Biden: Trump did it to himself

Campaigning in Miami, Biden said, "I hope the president’s recovery is swift and successful, but the nation's COVID crisis is far, far from over."

During an NBC News town hall event in that city Monday night, Biden essentially said it's Trump's own fault he got the virus. "Anybody who contracts the virus by essentially saying, 'masks don't matter, social distancing doesn't matter,' I think is responsible for what happens to them," Biden said.

The Democrat had harsh words for people who reject masks. "What is this macho thing, 'I'm not going to wear a mask?' What's the deal here? Big deal, does it hurt you? Be patriotic, for God's sake! Take care of yourself, but take care of your neighbors," he said.

Biden also voiced one semi-regret over how he responded to Trump's interruptions and attacks during their debate last week. "I should have said this is a ‘clownish undertaking’ instead of calling him a clown," the former vice president said.

White House COVID wildfire

The spread continues inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. More White House staff has gone down with the coronavirus, including press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who tested positive Monday, and two of her deputies.

The disease also hit two members of the housekeeping staff who didn't have direct contact with the Trumps. They were told to use "discretion" in discussing their positive tests, The New York Times reported. "I know that people in there are scared," Sam Kass, head chef during the Obama administration for six years, told The Washington Post.

Before slipping into quarantine, McEnany walked back a previous pledge from the communications staff to disclose the number of White House infections. Speaking to reporters Sunday with her mask off, she cited "privacy concerns," which didn't seem to make sense because she was being asked for the figure, not names.

ABC News, as of midafternoon Monday, confirmed 17 individuals who have been on the White House grounds or in contact with Trump have tested positive for the coronavirus. Multiple White House sources told ABC there is "a full-blown freakout" in the administration waiting to see who will be next to test positive — with aides not trusting one another and some trying to find ways to avoid coming into work at all.

A McEnany video clip from Feb. 25 on Fox News, before she became press secretary, was passed around on Twitter Monday. "We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here … isn’t that refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama?" she said then.

Janison: Believe it not

Trump professes to be doing well, but the credibility of his White House remains in critical condition, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. Over the weekend, official statements succumbed to factual denial every few hours. Truthlessness from the top continues to spread unabated.

Facts do emerge, such as the names of new White House infectees. The West Wing has not been taking adequate measures to protect its employees and higher-ups.

Now Trump & Co. can try with no shame to twist its own personal encounters with the lethal contagion into politically useful solidarity with victims of the disease. Before leaving his hospital suite, Trump tried an unconvincing self-testimonial about a personal triumph over adversity.

Trump hasn't devised solutions. He still won't endorse authentic medical findings or get on board with even a public-service message to protect himself and others near and far. And, no, contrary to his weekend messaging, Trump has not learned more about the virus than the experts.

Veep debate will be bubblelicious

The Commission on Presidential Debates has approved plans for plexiglass to be used in Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris amid mounting concerns about coronavirus transmission, Politico and CNN reported.

Plexiglass is expected to be used as a barrier between Pence and Harris, as well as between the two candidates and moderator Susan Page of USA Today. The plans have the support of the Cleveland Clinic, which is helping to set health protocols for the forums.

Harris favored the coronavirus barriers, but Pence's team opposed them. "If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it," said Katie Miller, a Pence spokeswoman who went through her own bout with the disease in May, when was away from work for more than two weeks. Pence left Washington Monday on a four-day campaign swing, which will include a MAGA rally in Arizona.

As for the next Trump-Biden debate, scheduled for Oct. 15, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said, "It is the president’s intention to debate." Biden said, "If the scientists say that it’s safe, the distances are safe, then I think that’s fine."

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond, written by Newsday's Bart Jones and Jesse Coburn. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ripped Trump for holding a fundraiser with hundreds of people in Bedminster last Thursday after he knew his close aide Hope Hicks had tested positive. Fearing a surge of cases in the state, Murphy said "that trip was completely unacceptable, completely reckless and completely uncalled for."
  • In a tweet defending his SUV ride outside Walter Reed on Sunday to wave at fans, Trump tweeted, "If I didn’t do it, Media would say RUDE!!!" Not likely. The tweet made no mention of the Secret Service agents who had to accompany him in the hermetically sealed vehicle.
  • Top White House officials are blocking strict new federal guidelines for the emergency release of a coronavirus vaccine, objecting to a provision that would almost certainly guarantee that no vaccine could be authorized before Election Day, The New York Times reported. The guidelines were aimed at assuring the public a decision would be based on science, not politics.
  • The Rev. Paul Scalia, a son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, apologized to his parish in Virginia on Monday for going maskless at the Sept. 26 White House ceremony for the court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. That gathering now appears to have been a likely superspreader event. The priest, lamenting that he has "distracted from the work of the Gospel," said he has tested negative so far but is self-quarantining through Friday at his doctor's advice.
  • The White House has decided not to trace the contacts of guests and staff members who were at the Barrett event, The New York Times reported.
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, told CNN he has not been involved in Trump's care. He called the president's medical team "very good physicians."
  • The State Department revoked the visa of a Ukrainian political fixer, Andrii Telizhenko, who aided Rudy Giuliani's gambit to dig for information that could damage Biden, The Washington Post reported. The action came as U.S. officials crack down on Russian efforts to influence the election despite Trump's aversion to acknowledging Kremlin intrigues.

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