Donald Trump tries to play down severity of coronavirus as Pentagon leaders go into quarantine

Ella Castle

US President Donald Trump appeared to be using his bout with Covid-19 to try to gain an advantage over his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, even as the number of infections around him continued to rise and some of America’s top military leaders went into quarantine. General Mark Milley, the chairman […]

US President Donald Trump appeared to be using his bout with Covid-19 to try to gain an advantage over his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, even as the number of infections around him continued to rise and some of America’s top military leaders went into quarantine.

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General James McConville, the Army chief of staff; and several other Pentagon leaders are quarantining after being exposed to the coronavirus, Defence Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman announced on Tuesday, after a statement from the US Coast Guard that Admiral Charles Ray, the division’s second in command, tested positive for Covid-19.

Two more White House staffers also tested positive, including a military aide and one of Trump’s valets, an active member of the US military who travelled with the president last week, according to Bloomberg News. The latest cases bring the number of infections among individuals who either work at the White House or have recently attended events there, including the president and First Lady Melania Trump, to 19.

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Trump, who received an aggressive course of experimental treatments while hospitalised and will get round-the-clock care at the White House, has consistently played down the ­disease even though the US has the world’s highest coronavirus death toll.

Political analysts said that with only four weeks left until the ­November 3 election, the positive diagnosis and the personality of the candidate left the Trump ­campaign with little choice but to double down on denying the gravity of the virus as the president faced a backlash for telling Americans not to fear a contagion that has killed more than 1 million people worldwide.

The image of Trump removing his face mask on the South Portico of the White House after his return from the Walter Reed medical centre, and then saluting and waving, coincided with an online video of him saying: “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it.”

Trump underscored this strategy with a Twitter post comparing Covid-19, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans, to the ­seasonal flu. Twitter slapped a warning on the post, saying that it spread “misleading and potentially harmful information related to Covid-19”.

Facebook also removed a post by Trump with a similar message comparing the illness with seasonal influenza.

“Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu,” Trump wrote.

“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!!!”

Influenza was estimated by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to have killed 22,000 Americans in the 2019-2020 season and 34,200 in the ­previous year.

Biden posted on Twitter a split-screen video showing him putting a mask on and the footage of Trump removing his at the White House.

Trump also announced via Twitter that he was “looking forward” to the second of three debates with Biden, scheduled to take place in Miami on October 15, which would be 14 days after the president announced his Covid-19 diagnosis. Conley and other White House officials have refused to give a date for Trump’s last negative test result.

In polls taken since Trump’s ­diagnosis and the first debate with Biden on September 29, which saw the president repeatedly talk over his Democratic rival and the moderator, Trump’s ­fortunes have worsened.

Among likely voters, 57 per cent said they supported Biden and 41 per cent Trump, according to a CNN poll released on Tuesday, the largest margin seen in a major ­survey so far.

But given the vagaries of the US Electoral College, which decides the winner, the race will still come down to a handful of swing states that are less clear because of Biden’s more narrow lead.

Meanwhile, a survey released on Tuesday by Pew Research found that an unfavourable view of China had hit historic highs in many developed countries, but when it came to handling the pandemic, the US ranked even lower.

In a survey of 14 countries, a median of 61 per cent of respondents said China had done a bad job of handling the pandemic, topped only by the 84 per cent who said the US had mismanaged it.

This compared with the 35 per cent of respondents in European nations, Canada, the US, South Korea and Japan who said a poor job had been done by the World Health Organization – the United Nations agency Trump has blamed along with China for the spread of the virus in the US.

Confidence in President Xi ­Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs also hit new lows, with at least 70 per cent of the respondents across all the countries expressing “no confidence” in the Chinese leader, up 17 percentage points, led by Japan with 84 per cent and South Korea with 83 per cent.

However, Trump’s ratings were also poor.

“In Germany, 78 per cent say they have no confidence in Xi – but 89 per cent say the same of Trump,” the Pew report said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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