Doug Mills / The New York Times
Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 | 9 a.m.
The presidential contest took another acrimonious turn Thursday as Joe Biden’s campaign amplified its denunciations of President Donald Trump over revelations that he had knowingly minimized the risks of the coronavirus, and the Trump campaign tried to deflect blame back onto Biden.
A day after book excerpts and audio recordings showed that Trump had privately acknowledged to journalist Bob Woodward early this year that he knew of the virus’s danger but downplayed it anyway, Biden surrogates vigorously denounced the president’s response to the public health crisis, directly linking it to the loss of American lives.
The Trump campaign, on the defensive for the second day over Trump’s faltering pandemic response, attempted to control the fallout from the Woodward book by striking back at Biden for what it claimed was the former vice president’s “behind the curve” approach to the virus.
The condemnations from the Biden campaign continued in the afternoon, when its vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, also accused the president of recklessly endangering American lives.
“He had all this information yet he held rallies, he suggested that to wear a mask is a sign of weakness as opposed to a sign of strength,’’ Harris said at an appearance in Florida. “This is the president of the United States. So we continue to have examples of the fact that this is an individual who is not concerned about the health and safety and well-being of the American people and is frankly engaged in a reckless disregard for the lives and health and well being of the people of our country. I find it so outrageous.”
The dueling attacks over the virus signaled a new, increasingly bitter front in the presidential race as both campaigns seek to shore up support with less than eight weeks until the general election on Nov. 3.
The urgency of the attacks also underscores how detrimental Trump’s failure to contain the pandemic has been for his reelection prospects. A majority of voters continue to disapprove of the way Trump has handled the pandemic: In a Monmouth University poll released this week, only 37% of registered voters said the president had done a good job, while 56% said he had done a bad job.
Sensing a potent political opportunity, Biden and his surrogates have aggressively seized on Trump’s remarks to Woodward. Though Biden had planned Wednesday to take on the president over the economy and protecting American jobs during an appearance in Warren, Michigan, he quickly pivoted to lace into Trump over the revelations in Woodward’s book, denouncing the president’s response as “beyond despicable.”
“He knew how dangerous it was,” Biden said. “And while this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose. It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people.”
On Thursday surrogates for Biden offered a stinging rebuke of the president during a call with reporters, repeatedly stressing that Trump had lied to Americans about the threat of the virus.
“My dad trusted the president,” said Kristin Urquiza, whose 65-year-old father died of the virus in Arizona in June, not long after the state lifted many stay-at-home restrictions. “He listened to the president and followed his advice,” she continued, echoing remarks she made at the Democratic convention last month.
“And sure, my dad did not panic. But instead, he died.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who was also on the call, said Trump’s decision to play down the virus was “the definition of Donald Trump’s phony populism.”
“He sold the American people these lies, then he betrayed them and people died,” Brown said.
Trump’s private admission that he had intentionally played down the deadliness of the coronavirus burst into the open Wednesday after several news outlets obtained advance copies of Woodward’s book “Rage.” The book revealed that Trump had known as early as February that the coronavirus was more dangerous than the flu even as he told the country otherwise.
“I wanted to always play it down,” the president said in a recorded interview with Woodward on March 19.
When pressed by reporters Wednesday about why he did not do more in February and March, given what he knew, Trump said that he had not expected the virus to spread as far and as fast as it did.
“You didn’t really think it was going to be to the point that it was,” he said. “All of a sudden, the world was infected. The entire world was infected. Everyone was scrambling around looking where to buy face masks and all of the other things.”
During a news conference at the White House on Thursday afternoon, Trump turned his attention to Biden, claiming that the former vice president “continues to use the pandemic for political gain” and railing against what he perceived as criticism from Biden over Trump’s travel ban on China. (Shortly after Trump issued the travel ban, Biden had denounced Trump’s “record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fearmongering.”)
“Joe’s decision to publicly attack the China ban proved he lacks the character or intelligence or instinct to do what is right,” Trump said.
Trump also falsely claimed that Biden had “launched a public campaign” against a coronavirus vaccine. “Biden’s perfectly happy to endanger the lives of other people by doing something that he thinks is going to help him politically,” Trump said.
Biden has warned that Trump was undermining confidence in a potential vaccine, and has said that he “would want to see what the scientists said” before getting a vaccine — though he also said he would get a vaccine “tomorrow” even if it cost him the election. Harris has expressed distrust in a vaccine promoted by Trump.
Trump also traveled to Freeland, Michigan, for an evening rally, where he urged the return of Big Ten football and defended his virus response by comparing it to Winston Churchill’s leadership during the bombing of London in World War II.
Biden had no public events scheduled on Thursday night.
In a memo to reporters, the Trump campaign pointed to the Biden campaign’s decision to hold an indoor rally in Michigan in early March — while ignoring that Trump had continued to hold rallies even as he was aware that the virus was deadly, and that he held an indoor rally in Oklahoma in June after more than 100,000 people had died in the United States.
“While President Trump was already taking decisive action to protect the country in the early months, Biden was saying barely anything about the pandemic and continuing about his campaign as normal,” the Trump campaign said.
Trying to parry the Trump campaign’s attacks, Bill Russo, the deputy communications director for the Biden campaign, laid out steps Biden had taken as the outbreak grew, including an op-ed article Biden wrote about the dangers of the virus in January.