Defiant as ever about the coronavirus, U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday turned his first campaign rally since contracting COVID-19 into a full-throated defence of his handling of the pandemic that has killed 215,000 Americans, joking that he was healthy enough to plunge into the crowd and give voters “a big fat kiss.”
There was no social distancing and mask-wearing was spotty among the thousands who came to see Trump’s return to Florida. He held forth for an hour, trying to get his struggling campaign back on track with just weeks left before election day.
Though he was hospitalized battling the virus only a week ago, Trump’s message on COVID-19 was unaltered since his diagnosis: a dubious assessment that the pandemic was just about a thing of the past.
“Under my leadership, we’re delivering a safe vaccine and a rapid recovery like no one can even believe,” Trump insisted. Offering no evidence, he continued, “If you look at our upward path, no country in the world has recovered the way we have recovered.”
His voice was perhaps a touch scratchy but otherwise, Trump was very much his normal self. Boisterous and bellicose, he thanked the audience for their well-wishes and declared he was no longer contagious as he embarked on a frenetic final stretch of the campaign.
Trump insisted that, after being given experimental medication and other VIP treatment, he felt great and was glad he no longer needs to be concerned about infection because he’s now “immune.”
“I feel so powerful,” said Trump, displaying no obvious signs of lingering infection. “I’ll walk into that audience. I’ll walk in there, I’ll kiss everyone in that audience. I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women … everybody. I’ll just give ya a big fat kiss.”
The rally came just a week after his release from the hospital. Trump, whose doctor said Monday for the first time that he had received a negative test for COVID-19, faces a stubborn deficit in national and battleground state polling. He has a busy week scheduled, that will include events in Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
After Air Force One lifted off from Joint Base Andrews, the president’s doctor, Navy Cmdr. Scott Conley, released an update on his health that said Trump had tested negative for the virus — and had done so on consecutive days. He did not say on which days. Conley said that the tests, taken in conjunction with other data, including viral load, have led him to conclude that Trump was not contagious.
Trump, who spent three nights in the hospital for treatment, said on Sunday he had fully recovered and was no longer infectious, but he did not say directly whether he had tested negative for the coronavirus.
The Republican president, 74, is seeking to change the dynamics of a race that national opinion polls and some state polls show he is losing to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, 77.
For months, Trump had worked furiously to shift public attention away from the virus and his handling of the pandemic, which has infected nearly 7.7 million people in the United States, killed more than 214,000 and put millions out of work.
His own illness has put the spotlight squarely on his coronavirus response during the closing stretch of the race.
Biden campaigned in Ohio Monday, attempting to expand the battleground map and keep Trump on the defensive in a state thought to be out of reach for Democrats after Trump’s wide margin of victory there four years ago.
The Democratic presidential nominee stressed an economic message and touted his own record while casting Trump as having abandoned working-class voters who helped him win Rust Belt states that put him in the White House in 2016.
In Toledo, Biden addressed United Auto Workers who represent a local General Motors’ powertrain plant. The former vice-president spoke in a parking lot with about 30 American-made cars and trucks arrayed nearby, and he struck a decidedly populist note, praising unions and arguing that he represented working-class values while the Republican Trump cared only about impressing the Ivy League and country club set.
“I don’t measure people by the size of their bank account,” Biden said. “You and I measure people by the strength of their character, their honesty, their courage.”
Critics have faulted Trump for failing to encourage supporters at campaign events, and even White House staff, to wear protective masks and abide by physical-distancing guidelines. At least 11 close Trump aides have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Biden, who has said it is irresponsible for any candidate to hold events where attendees are not wearing masks or engaging in physical distancing, lashed out at the president’s approach.
“President Trump comes to Sanford today bringing nothing but reckless behaviour, divisive rhetoric and fear mongering,” he said in a statement.
The scientific research has been inconclusive on how long people who have recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies and are protected from a second infection.
Most recent polls in Florida, where a Trump loss would dramatically narrow his path to re-election, show Biden with a small lead. Trump won Florida over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 by just 1.2 percentage points, which helped propel him to the White House.
Trump has pulled back his advertising in Ohio in recent days, while Biden has increased his, another sign of the opportunity he and his fellow Democrats see to make more states competitive than they initially imagined.