CNN  — 

As the coronavirus pandemic surges in states that embraced his calls for aggressive early openings, President Donald Trump is mocking the very measures that might mitigate a crisis about which he is constantly in denial.

Trump said at his weekend rally that he had told his staff to slow down testing for the disease, which has now killed nearly 120,000 Americans, to hide the discovery of more cases. Claims by his advisers that he was joking hardly lessen the questionable motives behind the remark.

Trump has meanwhile also helped to turn the wearing of masks, which is proven to slow transmission of the disease, into a culture war issue. And his rally in Oklahoma on Saturday night was a rebuke of the notion of social distancing – even though, ironically, his smaller-than-expected crowd would have made such practices possible. Health experts warn that spikes in infections in states like Florida and Arizona – both of which recorded new highs in daily infection rates over the weekend – are being driven by the public’s waning willingness to avoid large gatherings and a reticence to wear masks.

The President’s poor example represents a typical effort to divide Americans and highlight divisions over specific issues for his own political gain. But in the long run, apart from putting thousands of lives at risk, it is counterproductive, since a more stringent effort to avoid rises in infections as states open up would likely promote the fast economic recovery on which Trump is banking a reelection campaign that has slipped into trouble in recent weeks.

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New cases of the novel coronavirus are now rising in 23 states, according to Johns Hopkins University figures. The disease is steady in 10 states and falling in 17. The data suggests that the US pandemic is still not under control, five months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first case on American soil.

By ignoring or trying to talk away rising infections, the White House is effectively revealing that it has neither the plans nor the inclination to aggressively fight the worst public health crisis in a century, with the United States failing to see the sharp declines in infections after reaching its peak that other major industrialized nations have seen.

Yet another week begins with a White House in turmoil

The White House begins a new week in a typical storm of controversy, exacerbated by Trump’s decision to hold a rally that could turn into a super-spreader event during a pandemic and his administration’s move to fire Geoffrey Berman, a top prosecutor in New York, that sparked new concerns about its respect for the rule of law and the independence of the justice system. Trump woke up on Monday and launched into a frantic, capitalized Twitter tirade claiming, against all available evidence, that mail-in voting causes widespread fraud and foreign election meddling.

A Trump adviser told CNN that Trump is “very” upset about the turnout at the rally Saturday night. Donors and friends of the President have been fuming Sunday in the wake of Trump’s poorly-attended rally this weekend, a person involved with the re-election said.

Meanwhile, the virus is still raging, and the administration doesn’t seem to be on the same page on whether there will be a second wave in the fall. Despite White House trade adviser Peter Navarro telling CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” that the White House is preparing for one, Vice President Mike Pence has blamed the media for inciting “panic” on that front.

The administration’s sluggish efforts to ramp up coronavirus testing early in the pandemic worsened the disease’s impact. And though the number of tests conducted has now reached 25 million, the figure is far below the millions of tests a week that health experts say are needed to identify the true spread of the disease and to trace and isolate those infected.

The controversy over Trump’s testing comments completed a miserable weekend that was supposed to give the President momentum but instead laid bare his political weaknesses, including his constant habit of saying wild things that detract from his own campaign. The President is angry, CNN reported, about the poor crowd – around 6,200 people – who showed up to his rally in Tulsa after he had spent the week claiming the attendance would be record-breaking.

During his rally on Saturday night, Trump made the shocking claim that he had told his staff to slow testing to cover up the true extent of the disease. And it’s not the first time he’s suggested that.

“You know testing is a double-edged sword,” Trump said Saturday. “Here’s the bad part … when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people; you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.”

It is not clear whether officials did slow testing at a time when they were claiming that they were speeding it up and falsely proclaiming that the United States was a world leader in testing. An administration official told CNN that Trump was “obviously kidding.” Navarro also said the President was joking on “State of the Union” on Sunday.

“Come on now, that was tongue in cheek,” Navarro told Tapper. “That was a light moment for him at a rally.”

Why the President would be joking about the testing effort in a pandemic that has killed thousands of Americans and revealed his own administration’s liabilities is a mystery. But if he was speaking in jest, the remark in itself would reflect the flippant manner in which he has approached the pandemic and his own rejection of the scientific steps that could improve the situation.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf argued that Trump was mad at the press for its (factually correct) coverage of rising cases of new coronavirus infections.

“What you heard from the President was frustration – frustration in the sense of that we are testing, I believe we’ve tested over 25 million Americans. We’ve tested more than any other country in this world,” Wolf said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “Instead, the press and others, all they want to focus on is an increasing case count.”

Trump’s remarks drew an immediate rebuke from the campaign of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

“This is an appalling attempt to lessen the numbers only to make them look good,” Symone Sanders, a top Biden adviser, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“That’s what will be remembered long after last night’s debacle of a rally – the admission of the President that he slowed testing for his political benefit.”

Rising infection rates

Public health experts reacted with disbelief to Trump’s comments about testing.

“This is incredibly frustrating for the millions of Americans who have gotten sick and have not been able to get tests. It’s got to be incredibly frustrating for people who’ve lost families in nursing homes, because we haven’t been able to test nursing home residents and workers, or meatpacking plant workers. This is unfortunately not a joke,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told CNN on Sunday.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Michael Osterholm, director for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said that the pandemic was like a “forest fire” that might not slow down and was being exacerbated by the White House’s lack of a strategy.

“At this point, we don’t really have a national plan that really puts together what we’re trying to do. We have 50 different states, the District of Columbia, the territories, all kind of with their own plan,” Osterholm said. “We’re at 70% of the number of cases today that we were at the very height of the pandemic cases in early April, and yet I don’t see any kind of a ‘This is where we need to go, this is what we need to do to get there’ kind of effort, and that’s one of our challenges.”

New criticism of the administration’s poor response to the pandemic coincided with alarming new evidence that the disease is making strides in southern and western states. Arizona health officials reported 2,592 new infections on Sunday. The state’s total of cases has nearly doubled in 14 days. Tulsa County, which hosted Trump’s rally, reported yet another new daily high of coronavirus cases with 143 in the previous 24 hours. Florida reported 3,000 more Covid-19 cases on Sunday after reaching a new daily high of over 4,000 new infections the day before.

Officials in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas and other states are reporting that a higher proportion of younger people are testing positive for the virus. While younger people typically experience less severe symptoms of Covid-19 than their elders, they can spread it to others and the data is alarming because it suggests that social distancing and masking are breaking down.

Yet the President has refused to wear a mask in public and been ambivalent at the very least about their use, and his conservative supporters have portrayed the use of masks as an attempt by liberals and elitists to infringe on the basic freedoms of Americans. Were the President to model mask wearing – or argue that it could be a temporary inconvenience that could help everyone resume normal life sooner – he could have huge influence, given the prominence of his platform and his influence over his supporters.

“The best spokesman would be the President,” Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer ahead of Trump’s event in the city on Tuesday.

“If he told everyone at that rally it was important to wear masks, I believe they would do it,” Gallego said. “Please send the strongest signal to everyone – they need to wash their hands, they need to wear masks and they have to stay home if there’s any question if they are sick.”

Although the Trump campaign handed out masks at the rally on Saturday, few people in the crowd seemed to be wearing them. Senior officials who traveled with the President mostly and ostentatiously declined to wear one. This was despite the fact that six campaign staffers sent to prepare the rally tested positive for the virus before the President arrived.

CNN’s Jim Acosta and Sarah Westwood contributed to this report.