Amid coronavirus threat, Trump holds South Carolina rally in latest effort to disrupt Democratic primary

The Trump administration is working to manage a response to COVID-19.

President Donald Trump attacked Democrats at a rally in North Charleston, South Carolina, on the eve of the state’s crucial primary -- all while his administration works to tackle the growing fear surrounding the novel coronavirus.

The president defended his administration's response to the coronavirus threat, blasting Democrats for "politicizing" the issue and calling it "their new hoax" -- adding that "they can’t even count the votes in Iowa." The president also compared annual flu deaths to the coronavirus, saying "the press is in hysteria mode."

"So, a number that nobody heard of -- that I heard of recently, and I was shocked to hear it, 35,000 people on average die each year from the flu. Did anyone know that? 35,000. That’s a lot of people. It can go to 100,000. It can be 27,000," Trump said. "They say usually a minimum of 27,[000], goes up to 100,000 people a year die. And so, far we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States."

Early in the rally, Trump accused Democrats of "politicizing the coronavirus."

"One of my people came up to me and said, 'Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.' That didn't work out too well," he said. "They tried the impeachment hoax."

"This is their new hoax," Trump said.

Trump also blasted some Democratic candidates ahead of Saturday's primary, including former Vice President Joe Biden and billionaire Mike Bloomberg. At one point Trump asked the audience who they think would be his weakest general election opponent, suggesting they should vote for them in the primary, while questioning out loud "if it's legal." As an open primary, registered South Carolina voters can participate in the primary of their choosing.

The president again ripped Biden over gaffes on the campaign trail, zeroing in on the former vice president recently misstating gun deaths. He also slammed Bloomberg, saying, "It is time to go home. Go home, Mike, and enjoy your life. Go home and spend some money on something."

Friday’s rally at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center marked the president’s fourth consecutive counter-rally ahead of a Democratic contest this primary season, signaling just how imperative it is for Trump to grab attention as voters select his general election opponent.

The campaign stop came as the administration worked to handle the COVID-19 threat, and as the stock market continued to fall. His Democratic rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, jumped to criticize the president’s response to the crisis ahead of the rally.

In an interview with CNN on Friday, Biden blasted Trump for downplaying the threat, claiming "no one takes the president's word for these things."

"At a minimum, he exaggerates everything, and the idea that he's going to stand there and say everything is fine, don't worry?" Biden said of Trump. "Who is going to believe that? Let the experts speak like we did in our administration."

Bloomberg also targeted the president, saying at a Tennessee campaign event on Friday: "The stock market has plunged partly out of fear, but also because investors have no confidence that the president is capable of managing the crisis."

The White House defended the administration’s response to the coronavirus threat on Friday when Mick Mulaney, Trump's acting chief of staff, said: "We took extraordinary steps four of five weeks ago."

"Why didn’t you hear about it? What was going on four or five weeks ago? Impeachment." Mulvaney said. "And that’s all the press wanted to talk about."

He noted that the coronavirus threat "absolutely real," 20 million Americans get the flu each year.

"This is not Ebola, OK? … It’s not SARS, it’s not MERS," he said, pointing to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome -- two diseases with high fatality rates.

The president will head back on the campaign trial on Monday, when he rallies in North Carolina -- a Super Tuesday state -- on the eve of what is arguably the most influential contest for the Democratic primary calendar.

"It seems to be pretty effective," Trump told reporters before his West Coast swing last week that saw events in Arizona, Colorado, and Las Vegas ahead of the Nevada caucuses. "I went just the day before in both cases Iowa, New Hampshire and so it seems to be effective."

Trump has been clear that his reasoning for these rallies ahead of primary contests is to rattle his opponents.

"Will be in Manchester, New Hampshire, tonight for a big Rally. Want to shake up the Dems a little bit - they have a really boring deal going on," Trump tweeted ahead of his New Hampshire rally on the eve of that states primary. "Still waiting for the Iowa results, votes were fried. Big crowds in Manchester!"

It’s the latest example of the president inserting himself into the Democratic primary, dropping in ahead of a critical contest with one of his signature massive rallies that not only soak up media attention, but can often cause logistical issues for candidates and voters trekking across the state for last minute events.

Trump -- who also held counter-rallies ahead of both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary -- continued his strategy on Friday night, ahead of Saturday's primary in the Palmetto State.