GOP Senator Breaks With Trump, Says 'American People Can Take Hard Facts' About COVID

Sen. Susan Collins
Senator Sen. Susan Collins is seen during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss vaccines and protecting public health during the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington, D.C. on September 9, 2020. Greg Nash-Pool/Getty

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that President Donald Trump's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been "uneven" while refusing to say whether she would vote for him in her first debate with Democratic challenger Sara Gideon on Friday.

Collins, who said Trump was "unworthy" to be president before the 2016 election, has been guarded in her remarks about him as she seeks reelection. During the debate, she was asked about whether Trump had "failed" in protecting Americans from COVID-19, after portions of the president's comments in interviews for Bob Woodward's upcoming book Rage revealed that he had intentionally downplayed the threat.

"I believe that the president should have been straightforward with the American people," Collins said. "The American people can take hard facts and he had an obligation to be straightforward with them and to tell all that he has known."

"I have said since the beginning that the president's performance has been uneven," she added. "And that he should follow the advice of his excellent medical advisers."

During recorded conversations with Woodward, Trump said that he had hoped not to "create a panic" over the pandemic by purposefully "playing it down" with the general public, while admitting it was "deadly stuff" privately.

Few Republicans have publicly criticized Trump on his handling of the pandemic, despite polls that consistently show most Americans believe he has performed poorly.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) blasted the president's "credibility" Thursday, saying the Woodward comments revealed that Trump had avoided "leveling with the American public." Romney is a frequent critic of Trump, voting for him to be removed from office after he was impeached.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said that some of Trump's comments were "quite surprising and quite concerning," while noting that she has not read the unreleased book. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) offered less forceful criticism, saying on Fox Business that it "would have certainly been helpful" if Trump had sounded the alarm earlier.

However, Collins is the only GOP senator to speak critically on the issue while being up for reelection this year. Her seat is considered particularly vulnerable by Democrats who hope to regain control of the senate, with most polls showing her trailing Gideon.

The campaign has been careful to avoid attacks from both ends of the political spectrum by taking largely neutral stances on both Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Collins has refused to answer queries into whether she would be voting for Trump in November. She continued to remain silent on the issue after Gideon challenged her during the debate.

"Let me say this, I don't think the people of Maine need my advice on whom to support for president," Collins said. "Last week I was on a bus tour all over the state of Maine, not a single person asked me who should be our next president."

Last month, the campaign's Twitter account posted a photo from a campaign even that apparently been digitally altered to blur out a Trump sign that is visible in other photos of the event.

Newsweek reached out to the Collins campaign for comment.