Independent Senator Accuses Trump of 'Unconditional Surrender' to COVID After Controversial Chief of Staff Remarks

Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, accused President Donald Trump of "unconditional surrender" to the COVID-19 pandemic, after White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows controversially said that the administration is "not going to control the pandemic."

Meadows' remarks came during an interview with CNN's State of the Union on Sunday, after Trump claimed at a Friday rally in Florida that the U.S. is "entering the final turn and approaching the light at the end of the tunnel" with the pandemic. The same day, the U.S. broke its previous record for new daily COVID-19 infections, recording more than 85,000 cases.

"We're not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas," Meadows said in his interview with CNN. When host Jake Tapper asked why, the chief of staff replied: "Because it's a contagious virus. Just like the flu, it's contagious."

The Quote

"Remember five or six months ago, the president said, 'This is war, I'm a wartime president'? Yesterday was unconditional surrender. It was basically waving a white flag saying, 'We can't control it. There's nothing you can do,'" King told CNN in a Monday morning interview when he was asked about Meadows' remarks.

"And that's nonsense of course," the independent lawmaker continued. "They can control it. The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and doctors and everybody else has been telling us for months what we have to do. It's an airborne disease—therefore masks, wash your hands, keep separate from one another. If that had been the consistent message from the White House from the beginning, when we knew those were what we had to do, in the meantime, had they developed a really strong testing program, we'd be—there'd probably 50—100,000 fewer deaths and we'd be looking like other countries that are having surges—but nothing like we're having," King said.

Why It Matters

Trump has downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic since the early days of the outbreak. He admitted on the record to journalist Bob Woodward in a March interview that he "wanted to always play it down." The president has also repeatedly dismissed the novel coronavirus as comparable to the common flu, but he admitted to Woodward that he knew it was more deadly.

The president has repeatedly disregarded public health guidance during the pandemic—including the advice put forward by his own White House coronavirus task force. Even as new COVID-19 infections surge across the country, as hospitalizations increase and new deaths once again tick upward, Trump continues to hold large rallies with thousands of attendees crowded together. Many of Trump's supporters at these events do not wear masks, and the president routinely foregos the use of a face covering when health experts would argue one should be worn.

Even some Republicans have increasingly shown a willingness to criticize the president and his response to the pandemic. In a Sunday interview with CBS News' Face the Nation, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, lamented that Trump's messaging has been "confusing."

"Obviously with the rallies, there is confusing messages there," Hutchinson said. The GOP governor said that leaders need "to be truthful and realistic, and everyone knows that we are going through a very difficult crisis and it is going to likely get worse as we go into the winter."

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden Biden, who is leading Trump by a significant margin in several national polls, released a statement condemning the White House response to the crisis after Meadows' remarks.

"This wasn't a slip by Meadows, it was a candid acknowledgment of what President Trump's strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis: to wave the white flag of defeat and hope that by ignoring it, the virus would simply go away. It hasn't, and it won't," Biden said.

Mark Meadows and Donald Trump
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and President Donald Trump walk out of the White House on October 21 in Washington, D.C. Tasos Katopodis/Getty

Meanwhile, the seven-day average of new COVID-19 infections in the U.S. has surged upward to about 70,000 per day, while about 800 people have died per day over the past week, according to The New York Times' tracker. In total, the U.S. has recorded more than 8.7 million infections and over 225,000 deaths—the highest numbers of any country in the world.

Opposing View

The president and his supporters point to the unprecedented effort the U.S. has undergone to develop an effective vaccine for COVID-19, as well as the success of multiple therapeutic treatments. As a result of new treatments developed since the outbreak began in the U.S. just over nine months ago, mortality rates have declined significantly.

A recent scientific study of patients in the New York University Langone Health system showed that deaths among people hospitalized with the novel coronavirus have dropped. The research found that the death rate declined from 25.6 percent among those hospitalized with COVID-19 to 7.6 percent between March and August.

It appears likely that a successful vaccine for COVID-19 will be approved in the U.S. by the end of the year, or early next year. If that comes to fruition, as public health experts currently project, it will be the fastest vaccine ever developed. The previous record was about four years.

Newsweek reached out to the White House for comment, but it did not immediately respond.