A senior ally of Donald Trump has defended the US president’s dangerously misleading claim that 99% of coronavirus cases are “totally harmless” and ruled out a national mask-wearing mandate.
Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, spoke out as the number of Americans killed by Covid-19 topped 130,000 following a new surge in cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.
In a speech at the White House on Saturday, Trump said the US has tested more than 40 million people “but by so doing, we show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless”.
He did not provide evidence for the assertion and public health officials failed to correct it on a holiday weekend where thousands of people flooded beaches and parks.
Questioned on CNN, Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said: “I’m not going to get into who is right and who is wrong.”
On Monday, appearing on the Trump-friendly Fox News network, Meadows went further.
“I don’t even know that it’s a generalisation,” he said. “When you start to look at the stats and look at all the numbers we have, the amount of testing that we have, the vast majority of people are safe from this.
“When you look at the deaths that we have, if you’re over 80 years of age or if you have three what they call comorbidities – diabetes, hypertension, heart issues – then you need to be very, very careful. Outside of that, the risks are extremely low, and the president’s right with that and the facts and statistics back us up there.”
Experts suspect Trump was referring to the US death rate from Covid-19, which is about 1%, but point out that 15% to 20% of infected people end up in hospital, with some suffering debilitating health problems. And although the overall rate of increase in US deaths has been on a downward trend, fatalities are a lagging indicator. A Reuters analysis found that at least five states have already bucked it.
While it is true the US has stepped up testing, the number of new cases is increasing at faster rate and now stands at nearly 2.9m, the highest in the world and double that of Brazil, the second worst-hit country. Sixteen US states have posted new record daily case counts this month, with Florida hitting 11,000 in a single day. Texas passed 8,000 hospital admissions on Sunday, causing some mayors to consider launching new stay-at-home orders
Trump has also been widely condemned for failing to lead by example by wearing a mask in public, while passing the buck to governors.
Phil Murphy, the Democratic governor of New Jersey, has argued in favour of a national strategy that includes a mask requirement. New Jersey is seeing “small spikes in reinfection” from people coming back from Florida, South Carolina and other hotspots, Murphy said, because the US is “as strong as our weakest link right now”.
But in his Fox News interview, Meadows said the president sees masks as a “state-to-state” matter and “certainly a national mandate is not in order”.
He added: “We’re allowing our local governors and our local mayors to weigh in on that.”
Steve Adler, the Democratic mayor of Austin, Texas, condemned Trump’s comments.
“It’s incredibly disruptive and the messaging coming from the president of the United States is dangerous,” he told CNN. “One of the biggest challenges we have is the messaging coming out of Washington that would suggest that masks don’t work or it’s not necessary, or that the virus is going away on its own.”
Trump himself has attempted to pivot away from the virus – seemingly in the hope Americans will become numb to the death toll – and focus on “culture war” issues, such as the toppling of statues of Confederate generals and other historical figures, as well as rebuilding the US economy.
“NASDAQ HITS ALL TIME HIGH!” he tweeted on Monday, touting the latest stock market figures.
But polling by Hart Research has found that “voters reject Trump’s approach and are not willing to trade an economic rebound for people’s health. By a 65%-35% margin, voters say it would not be worth it to reduce the number of unemployed to 8% or 9% by election day if it meant deaths reach 200,000.”
Trump is planning a campaign rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Saturday, despite some staff and supporters who attended his indoor event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month having tested positive for the virus. They include Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr.
Kurt Bardella, a senior adviser at the Lincoln Project, a political action committee devoted to Trump’s defeat in November’s presidential election, told MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “Fifty thousand people a day are getting sick, 100,000-plus are dead and all the while, this president and this party want to embrace this ridiculous Make America Sick Again tour as him and the vice-president gallivant around the country and continue to spread this virus and get their own people sick.”
He added: “If Donald Trump won’t protect even the people closest to him, his staff, his employees, his colleagues, he sure as heck isn’t going to care about anybody else.”