Amid a raging pandemic, President Donald Trump has repeatedly choreographed a scene experts warn could lead to illness or even death: Thousands of supporters jammed together, mostly without masks, cheering for a candidate who mocks precautions against the novel coronavirus and has vowed to ignore his own health advisers.
Fighting for reelection amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Trump enters the final stretch of the election increasingly ridiculing and ignoring coronavirus-related restrictions while holding packed campaign rallies across the country. Health experts, meanwhile, warn a bad flu season colliding with the coronavirus could be a devastating double threat to the country.
“We need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter, because it’s not going to be easy,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's foremost infectious disease expert, said Thursday.
Asked during an interview with CBS News on Wednesday if it was frustrating to see Trump hold massive rallies with little-to-no mask-wearing, Fauci said, "Yes, it is."
Shifting focus and minimizing the threat
With flu season approaching, the president’s response to the virus has again reverted to mocking health precautions and holding packed rallies with thousands of mostly maskless supporters that float local state guidelines.
The president has worked to shift focus to the economy and violent protests in the streets, looking to portray the pandemic as a thing of the past despite cases still rising in nearly two dozen states and health officials warning the fall season could be crucial to combating the COVID-19.
Insisting on Thursday that the U.S. has now "rounded the final turn" -- just as the country approaches the once unimaginable milestone of 200,000 lives lost and the toll continues to climb -- Trump this week admitted to deliberately downplaying the threat of the virus publicly earlier this year even as he privately acknowledged the danger. The revelation came in audio recordings made by veteran journalist Bob Woodward for his book "Rage" set to be released next week.
On Friday, Fauci said he disagreed with the president's characterization, saying in an interview with MSNBC that the United States' current rate of around 40,000 cases and 1,000 deaths a day was "disturbing."
During a news conference Thursday, the president told ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl that he did not share the truth with the American public because he had wanted to "show a level of confidence" and "show strength as a leader."
Mocking masks -- and experts -- before packed crowds
After briefly pausing rallies following the debacle in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June, Trump has ramped up his campaign schedule to now holding multiple packed, outdoor rallies a week in airport hangars that often skirt local coronavirus restrictions.
At a rally last week in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the president in one breath urged supporters to wear masks over the Labor Day weekend while in the next repeatedly attacking his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, for wearing them, despite his own administration’s recommendations and the president himself in July tweeting a photo of himself in a mask calling it “patriotic.”
“Did you ever see a man that likes a mask as much as him?” Trump asked his supporters. "It gives him a feeling of security. If I was a psychiatrist, I'd say this guy has some big issues."
At the same rally, the president remarked to his crowd of mostly maskless supporters how incredibly contagious COVID-19 is—even at one point pointing into the mass of supporters to say the virus is so contagious, he could give it to one of them by just looking at them.
“I could look at that guy, he'll catch it right there and he is very far away from me,” Trump said, standing more than six feet away from the crowd. “It's a tough one because it's so contagious.”
Ahead of Trump’s airport rally on Tuesday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, county GOP chairman Dave Plyler called on the president to wear a mask, telling Winston-Salem Journal: "There is no excuse. He just needs to do it."
But the president not only didn’t wear a mask, during the packed rally he mocked coronavirus safety measures put in place by his opponent. “You ever see the gyms with the circles? That’s his crowd,” Trump said, referring to Biden’s socially distanced events which don’t have supporters in attendance.
“We’re doing all mostly hangar things because we’re outside. Outside is very much different than being inside. According to the great doctors, right?” Trump said, appearing to scoff at doctors.
Rallies flout local rules, experts' recommendations
The president's Winston-Salem rally itself, packed with thousands of supporters inside and outside mostly not wearing masks despite the campaign handing them out, went against both local and state regulations and what his own experts say is safe.
Trump frequently brags about his crowd sizes; boasted during his speech in Winston-Salem on that 15,000 supporters turned out on Tuesday, with thousands inside the airport hanger and thousands more in a packed overflow section.
Thousands more attended a rally Thursday night in Freeland, Michigan, where Trump again minimized the current state of the outbreak.
"President Trump and his campaign have always valued connecting directly with the American people and we’ve been able to do so in a way that prioritizes the health and safety of every event attendee," Trump campaign spokesperson Samantha Zager told ABC News. "Events look different during a pandemic, but we have adapted as the country reopens to continue harnessing the unmatched organic enthusiasm of the President’s supporters and build on the momentum to carry him to victory in November."
The Trump campaign says masks, hand sanitizer, and temperature checks will be given to every attendee at rallies, masks are not mandatory and many do not wear them and social distancing precautions are not followed.
The White House has defended the rallies by arguing there is a "double standard" with media coverage of protests calling for racial justice -- which have typically taken place outdoors, with many participants wearing masks -- and Trump's events. "People have a First Amendment right if they so choose to show up and express their political opinion in the form of a peaceful protest which is what the president has held and there is a real double standard here," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday.
The president’s strategy of portraying the pandemic as a thing of the past contrasts sharply with Biden's, whose socially distanced, smaller campaign events are designed not just to follow local regulations but to portray him as a responsible leader. Americans have consistently given Trump low marks in polls for his handling of the virus.
Trump’s approach to the virus clashes with warnings about the seriousness of preventing spread entering the fall season.
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has for months warned about the coronavirus and the seasonal flu striking at the same time this fall and winter.
"I'm asking you to do four simple things: wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, and be smart about crowds," Redfield said in an interview with WebMD last month. "If you do those four things it will bring this outbreak down. But, if we don't do that… this could be the worst fall from a public health perspective we've ever had."
On Thursday, the president told reporters that even if "the experts" recommended a "lockdown," he would not listen, although enacting social distancing restrictions is largely a call for state and local officials.
"Whether expert or not, we're not doing any more shutdowns," Trump said.
Hospitals across the country are bracing for the looming double threat of a bad flu season combined with the coronavirus that could put significant strain on the health system.
“Flu season can hit really hard,” Leslie Gomez, a nurse in the Emergency Department at Sharp Chula Vista told ABC News. “And COVID-19 has been devastating so I’m worried that these two forces will combine and cause a really difficult fall and winter.”
Supporters follow Trump's lead
As the president has taken a growing dismissive tone toward the virus, some of his supporters continue to follow his lead—questioning the seriousness of COVID-19 and rejecting masks.
“I have my mask in my pocket, but I’m really not planning on wearing it,” Paula Stanley told ABC News at Trump’s rally in North Carolina on Tuesday, days after the president mocked Biden for wearing one at a rally in Latrobe. “I really think the coronavirus has been overblown. I believe it’s real, but I don’t believe there’s any real proof that a mask does any good.”
“I’m really not afraid of it. I think that if this had not been an election year that this probably would not have as big a deal as has been made," she said.
When asked about the president briefly pushing supporters to wear masks over the summer before reverting back to not wearing them and mocking his rivals over them, Stanley said she believed Trump “had to listen to the experts and try to do what he thought was best” but that she believes “in his gut he probably, like most of us do, think that it’s been overblown and that masks probably don’t do any good.”
Jenny Wills, 57, who was one of the few Trump supporters wearing a mask in line to attend the president’s rally in Latrobe last week told ABC News she was only doing so because her elderly mother made her promise she would.
“I’m wearing it for my mom. She texted me and said, ‘Will you were your mask?’ So I did,” Wills told ABC News when asked about being one of the few attendees in line wearing a mask and about to board a packed charter to the rally with other mostly massless supporters. “I think a lot of it is gobbledygook,” she said, wearing a mask.
Another supporter in North Carolina, Tammy Cornell, 51, told ABC News she did bring her mask to the rally but did not want to wear it.
When asked about the health risks of attending a packed campaign rally in the middle of a pandemic, Cornell said simply: “We’re all going to be fine. And Trump’s worth it.”
ABC News' Elizabeth Thomas, Jordyn Phelps and Terrance Smith contributed to this report.