A member of the White House staff sprays disinfectant Monday...

A member of the White House staff sprays disinfectant Monday in the empty James Brady Briefing Room. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

The decider is back

For better or worse, President Donald Trump is determined to show he's still in charge. Hours after the Federal Reserve chair warned that economic recovery remains fragile without further coronavirus stimulus aid, Trump tweeted out a big decision, abruptly pulling the plug on discussions for a new package from Congress.

"I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business," Trump said. A planned meeting between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was called off.

It was hard to see how the move advanced Trump's hope of reelection. Even though Republicans agreed the Democrats' $2.4 trillion proposal was too much, they saw little downside politically to allowing the stimulus talks to continue to play out. Democratic candidate Joe Biden led his party's counterattack.

"Make no mistake: if you are out of work, if your business is closed, if your child’s school is shut down, if you are seeing layoffs in your community, Donald Trump decided today that none of that — none of it — matters to him," a statement from Biden said.

On a private conference call with House Democrats, Pelosi questioned whether the steroid dexamethasone, which Trump is taking as part of his treatment to recover from COVID-19, was affecting his thinking, according to USA Today and CNN. She wasn't the only one: Some White House staff members also wondered whether Trump’s behavior was affected by the cocktail of therapeutic drugs, The New York Times reported. Dexamethasone can produce a false level of energy, a euphoria and mood swings.

Sure enough, on Tuesday night, Trump tweeted second thoughts. Suddenly, he was amenable to going ahead with parts of a relief package: $25 billion to bail out airlines and reverse tens of thousands of layoffs; a $135 billion paycheck protection program for small businesses; another round of $1,200 individual stimulus checks. "Are you listening Nancy?" the president demanded.

Though he at times still sounded as if he was struggling to catch air when he spoke, Trump was restless on Tuesday, according to the Times. Through much of the day, he channeled his energy, real or illusory, into an epic string of rage tweets and retweets. His targets included a poll showing him losing in Pennsylvania, Pelosi, the Russia investigation, former special counsel Robert Mueller, FBI Director Christopher Wray, former FBI Director James Comey, "all of this scum," Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, first-debate moderator Chris Wallace, "the most corrupt election in American history" and FDA officials he accuses of slowing down approval of a coronavirus vaccine.

COVID cluster luck gets worse

It's as if Trump and his inner circle, unknowingly but heedlessly, had unleashed a form of germ warfare at those who came in their range. The count of victims mounted Tuesday, clearing out offices in the West Wing — like a ghost town, The Associated Press reported — and even at the Pentagon.

Most members of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the chairman, Army Gen. Mark Milley, are quarantining at home after Adm. Charles Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. Ray attended a White House ceremony for Gold Star families on Sept. 27 and had meetings with Pentagon officials in the days afterward.

The head of the National Security Agency, Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, was present at the meetings and will self-quarantine as well. At least one of Trump's military aides who carries the "nuclear football" tested positive after traveling with Trump to a New Jersey fundraiser on Thursday.

A Tuesday evening statement from senior aide Stephen Miller, an architect of Trump's hard-line immigration policies, said, "Today, I tested positive for COVID-19 and am in quarantine." That makes six of the aides, campaign officials and outside advisers who worked with Trump on preparations for last Tuesday's presidential debate.

Two more staffers who work under White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tested positive, bringing the total among her aides to four. McEnany also has the virus. A photojournalist, Al Drago, who attended the Sept. 26 ceremony announcing Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett — now eyed as a superspreader event — said he tested positive. Another COVID-19 case was a military valet for Trump who traveled with him last week.

Working from her West Wing office, communications director Alyssa Farah told Fox News: "We feel comfortable working here, those of us who are still here."

Work from home, White House-style

On his first full day back after his hospitalization, Trump worked out of makeshift office space on the ground floor of the White House residence, The Associated Press reported. That put him in proximity to the White House Medical Unit’s office suite, with only a few aides granted a face-to-face audience with the president.

A brief later from the White House physician, Dr. Sean Conley, said the president "reports no symptoms."

Pence drops push against plexiglass sealing

Vice President Mike Pence dropped objections to the debate commission's plan to put a plexiglass shield in front of him as well as Sen. Kamala Harris for their showdown in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, the commission said late Tuesday night.

Earlier in the day, Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, said his side doesn't view plexiglass dividers as medically necessary, given other safety measures, including a 12-foot distance between Pence and Harris, as well as daily testing of both candidates.

"If she wants it, she’s more than welcome to surround herself with plexiglass if that makes her feel more comfortable," Short said. A plexiglass barrier also will be set up in front of moderator Susan Page of USA Today. The devices will provide a physical reminder of the pandemic, for which Trump and Pence's crisis management is expected to be a dominant issue.

Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez previews what to watch for in the 90-minute debate, which starts at 9 p.m., including whether the tone is more civil than in the Trump-Biden faceoff last week. Both the vice president and his challenger are regarded as skilled debaters and dutiful defenders of their running mates.

Meanwhile, Biden said his Oct. 15 debate with Trump should be called off if the president still has the virus.

Janison: Running in place

At this point, we might as well dust off a phrase rarely used in the U.S.: "standing for election." "Running for election" seems off the mark when describing the contest between Biden and Trump, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

A new CNN poll shows Biden with a massive 16-point nationwide lead among likely voters four weeks out from Election Day. It finds that only 8% said they might change their decision, and 1% have not chosen between the two.

The coronavirus feeds this year's standing-not-running motif. Trump is dramatically sidelined and physically weakened by his COVID-19 infection in the last month of the contest. Biden has been observing precautions and wearing masks — not only to protect himself but to make a point.

The pandemic prompted both red and blue states to expand the use of absentee ballots. People already are voting in person as well. Any form of early voting limits what a candidate can yield from running to the end.

Neither Trump nor Biden can do much by now to run from their records. Standing fast and surviving the season, rather than scrambling around, seems like it will have to do. Still, events and appearances can create a buzz that translates into voter turnout and commitment.

Flu over the cuckoo's nest

Trump has gone full retro in pushing out coronavirus falsehoods. For the first time since March, he sent out a tweet Tuesday suggesting the country's response to COVID-19 shouldn't be more drastic than that for the flu.

"Flu season is coming up!" he said. "Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!"

In reality, the U.S. death toll from a typical flu season is in the tens of thousands; the estimate for the 2019-20 season was 22,000. The U.S. coronavirus death toll as of Monday was near 211,000 and still climbing.

Twitter added a warning label to Trump's tweet, saying it "spread misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19." Facebook removed an identical Trump posting.

As the president has repeatedly taken positions that contradict scientific facts, social media companies have grown more aggressive in trying to stomp out myths, bad medical advice and other misinformation related to the coronavirus, NBC News writes.

Without much of a trace

The White House decided not to do contact tracing beyond the two days before Trump's Thursday night diagnosis, The New York Times reported. The effort is being conducted by the White House Medical Unit, without seeking reinforcement from the CDC.

Not getting traced are the contacts of guests and staff members who were at the Barrett ceremony. At least 11 people who attended the event, including the president and the first lady, have since tested positive.

A White House source speaking to Axios blasted Trump's decision to leave the hospital while still infectious and the lack of information since the president became aware the virus was spreading inside. The source said, "He was so concerned with preventing embarrassing stories that he exposed thousands of his own staff and supporters to a deadly virus. He has kept us in the dark, and now our spouses and kids have to pay the price. It's just selfish."

Trump hasn't said or tweeted a word about the others in his orbit who caught the virus other than his wife, Melania, and close aide Hope Hicks, the first case to become known in the current outbreak. (So here's a list of them.)

Biden: We need to heal

From Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, Biden pledged on Tuesday to try to heal the country’s widening racial, political and economic divisions.

"Today, once again, we are a house divided," Biden said, harking back to President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. "But that, my friends, can no longer be. We’re facing too many crises. We have too much work to do. We have too bright a future to have it shipwrecked on the shoals of anger and hate and division."

He alluded to Trump's ambivalence about denouncing hate groups and skewered such behavior.

"Hate never goes away," Biden said. "It only hides, and when it’s given oxygen, when it’s given an opportunity to spread, when it’s treated as normal and acceptable behavior, we’ve opened a door in this country that we must move quickly to close."

More coronavirus news

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

What else is happening:

  • People around Biden are taking heightened measures to keep the candidate out of coronavirus harm's way, Reuters reported. A Biden adviser said Trump's infection validated their safety-first approach. The former vice president tested negatively again Tuesday — a week after his first debate with Trump, who already may have been infected then.
  • An appeals court ruled Wednesday that Trump must turn over his tax filings to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. as part of a corruption investigation.
  • Four weeks ahead of Election Day, senior national security officials provided fresh assurances about the integrity of the election in a video message Tuesday, which put them at odds with Trump’s efforts to discredit the system, The Associated Press reported.
  • Eric Trump told a Nebraska radio station last week that his dad "literally saved Christianity." An audio clip was dug up by CNN's KFile investigators.
  • Donald Trump Jr. posted a weird fantasy meme on Instagram. "Imagine this," it said. "Trump gets all better and donates his plasma to develop a coronavirus treatment. And then all the liberals have to get vaccinated with Trump’s blood."
  • An annual assessment report from the Department of Homeland Security warned Tuesday that violent white supremacy was the "most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland." A delay in issuing the report had prompted a whistleblower to accuse the agency of withholding in deference to Trump, who has been hesitant to speak out against white racist violence.
  • More than 4 million Americans already cast ballots for the general election, compared with just 75,000 by this point in 2016, according to a data analysis from the U.S. Elections Project, Reuters reported.
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