As the US recorded the highest single day of new coronavirus cases since the pandemic began on Friday, President Donald Trump looked to distract from the virus’ deadly toll by seizing on Joe Biden’s comment in Thursday night’s debate that America should shift its reliance on oil toward greater renewable energy use.
With the election less than two weeks away and more than 50 million ballots already cast, the fresh dispute over energy gave Trump a chance to shift the campaign away from his mishandling of a pandemic that’s killed more than 224,000 Americans and argue that Biden’s remarks could cost him five or six states on Election Day.
At a North Carolina rally Saturday afternoon, Trump pointed to the shifts in Biden’s position on fracking as a key liability in the election. But he also continued to downplay the virus, falsely claiming that the increase in coronavirus cases is due to increased testing and touting that the nation’s mortality rate has fallen because of enhanced treatments and improved management of Covid-19 patients.
The former vice president, meanwhile, has begun to deliver his own closing argument to voters, outlining his plan to tackle the pandemic with a focus on a free vaccine, governor-led mask mandates, a national testing plan and increased production and distribution of personal protective equipment.
“We’re more than eight months into this crisis, and the President still doesn’t have a plan. He’s given up. He’s quit on you. He’s quit on your family. He’s quit on America,” Biden said in a speech in Wilmington, Delaware, on Friday. “He just wants us to grow numb and resign to the horrors of this death toll and the pain it’s causing so many Americans.”
Disapproval of Trump’s handling of the pandemic has created a heavy drag on the President’s poll numbers as he continues to ignore the current surge in cases in at least 30 states this week. In Florida on Friday, he once again insisted that the nation is “rounding the corner” and that life will soon return to normal, statements that are completely contrary to the facts. The dishonesty of his rhetoric came into even starker relief Saturday evening with news that the virus had spread further into Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s inner circles. Marty Obst, a top adviser to Pence, tested positive for coronavirus earlier this week, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.
Trump’s attacks on Biden’s stance on energy and the climate crisis come at a time when the two men are battling over Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, which Trump won in 2016. The commonwealth, where Biden is spending the day on Saturday, could serve as the lynchpin to who wins the election in 2020.
Trump has been pummeling Biden for shifting his position on fracking, which is central to the commonwealth’s economy. Biden has made confusing statements about fracking during the course of the 2020 campaign, but he has not proposed a full ban on fracking, as Trump claims.
Biden responded to Trump during his Saturday’s event in Bucks County, Pennsylvania: “Let me be clear also: I’m not banning fracking in Pennsylvania or anywhere else. I can protect Pennsylvania jobs, period. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies.”
Still, several down-ballot Democrats in states with close ties to the energy industry – including two of House Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents, Reps. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico and Kendra Horn of Oklahoma – distanced themselves from Biden’s comments during the Thursday debate, using it as a chance to highlight an area of disagreement with the top of the ticket.
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During his two rallies in Florida on Friday, Trump highlighted Biden’s assertion during Thursday night’s debate that he “would transition from the oil industry, yes” to help address the climate crisis by increasing reliance on renewable energy.
Pressed by reporters after the debate, Biden clarified that he was referring to ending federal subsidies for oil. “Eventually we’re going to have to go to oil, but we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels,” Biden said. “We’re getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels, but we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time,” he said, adding “it will not be gone” until “probably 2050.”
But Trump eliminated any nuance in Biden’s position when in Florida on Friday, telling a crowd of seniors at the sprawling retirement community known as The Villages that Biden “wants to abolish the oil industry.”
Stretching Biden’s comments to the realm of the ridiculous, Trump also claimed in The Villages that Biden’s transition to greater reliance on renewable energy would mean that America’s seniors “have no air conditioning during the summer, no heat during the winter and no electricity during peak hours.” He also falsely claimed that Biden’s plans would include getting “rid of airplanes.”
Trump has made environmental deregulation a hallmark of his presidency. Earlier in the day, the Department of Energy finalized a rule allowing for a new class of dishwashers, which critics say could circumvent key environmental regulations.
The President’s scare tactics on energy were part of his broader argument Friday that the election is a choice between a “Trump super recovery” and a Biden “depression.”
The Trump campaign quickly tied Biden’s debate comments about oil to the shifts in his position on fracking in a new ad that they are airing in Pennsylvania, which falsely claims the former vice president “will end fracking” and is willing to sacrifice blue collar jobs to do so.
Trump campaign officials announced Friday that they had raised $26 million as a result of the debate for the campaign and affiliated GOP committees, which they said was the reelection effort’s largest digital fundraising day. But Biden and aligned Democratic committees held a cash advantage of more than $107 million in the final weeks of the campaign in recent fundraising filings.
Biden held a lead in Pennsylvania – 53% to 43% among likely voters – but neither candidate led in Florida, according to CNN polls released this week. After early voting in person in the Sunshine State on Saturday, Trump again tried to cast doubt on mail-in voting, saying his chosen method was “much more secure” – an assessment with which experts have disagreed.
Obama hits Trump’s leadership
But as Trump targeted Biden on energy policy, former President Barack Obama returned to the campaign trail Saturday as Biden’s top surrogate, delivering another fierce denunciation of the President’s leadership style and mocking him for complaining about his press coverage.
The former president ridiculed Trump for walking out of an interview with Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes.”
“He likes to act tough and talk tough,” Obama said in Miami Saturday afternoon, car horns honking as stand-in applause from the drive-in crowd. “He thinks scowling and being mean is tough, and being rude is tough. But when ’60 Minutes’ and Lesley Stahl are too tough for you, you ain’t all that tough. If you’ve got to walk out of a ‘60 Minutes’ interview, then you’re never going to stand up to a dictator.”
“If you’re spending all your time complaining about how mean reporters are to you, you’re not going to stand up to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,” he added.
Obama also argued that America should not have a President “who threatens people with jail just for criticizing him.”
“That’s not normal behavior, Florida,” Obama said. “You wouldn’t tolerate it from a coworker. You wouldn’t tolerate it from a high school principal. You wouldn’t tolerate it from a coach. You wouldn’t tolerate it from a family member. ‘Florida Man’ wouldn’t even do this stuff,” he said to laughter and honking from the Miami crowd. “Why are we accepting it from the President of the United States?”
Obama said Trump’s behavior “emboldens others to be mean, and cruel, and divisive, and racist.”
Different attitudes toward the virus
While Biden has outlined more detailed plans for fighting the pandemic, Trump continues to hold large rallies – with little mask wearing and social distancing – largely ignoring the recent warnings from the nation’s top health experts that the nation is headed into a darkening phase of the pandemic.
US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams warned that this week will probably mark “our highest number of cases that we’ve ever had on a daily basis in the United States.” Speaking at Meridian Global Leadership Summit, he said hospitalizations, which generally lag behind cases, are starting to go up in 75% of the jurisdictions across the country. That trend has often been followed by a rise in deaths.
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“Last night we saw the President of the United States lie to the American people and repeatedly lie about the state of this pandemic,” Biden said in Wilmington Friday about the previous night’s debate. On Saturday in Pennsylvania, Biden again delivered a sharp critique of the President’s handling of the pandemic.
“More than 220,000 dead Americans because of Covid-19,” Biden said in Bucks County, going on to point out the incongruence between the US posting its highest single-day number of new cases and Trump saying the country is “rounding the corner.”
In Lumberton, North Carolina, on Saturday, Trump boasted about his own immunity after contracting coronavirus, questioning the assertion by doctors that he may only be immune for four months, and claiming that he could go through the North Carolina crowd and kiss everyone if he wanted to.
He mocked the social distancing at Biden’s events, claiming that the cars at the former vice president’s drive-in event earlier in Bucks County, were too close together, and suggested that the media’s dark tone about the rising number of coronavirus cases is intended to hurt him politically. At one point, he said Americans won’t be hearing about the virus after Election Day.
During an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett on Friday night, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, said that the country currently holds its own fate in its hands and suggested it might be time for a mask mandate.
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Fauci stressed that getting control of the virus doesn’t mean forcing another economic shutdown, but instead doing basic things that can slow the spread of the virus, including wearing a mask, washing hands frequently, social distancing and avoiding crowds.
“They sound very simple, but we’re not uniformly doing that and that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing these surges,” Fauci said on “Erin Burnett Out Front.”
“That’s the reason why, as much as I can, essentially plead with the American public to please take these things seriously,” Fauci added. “We can turn it around.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Saturday.