Gaffes put spotlight on Meadows at tough time for Trump
For Mark Meadows, the gaffes have come at exactly the wrong time.
Meadows, President Trump’s resolutely charming chief of staff, rose from Congress to the White House earlier this year on the wings of his devout loyalty to the president and an uncanny faculty for staying on message in front of the TV cameras.
Yet on several occasions this month — with Election Day looming and Trump trailing badly in the polls — Meadows has found himself racing to mop up contentious comments he’s made about the coronavirus, most recently his statement Sunday that the country is “not going to control the pandemic.”
The assessment flew in the face of efforts by Trump’s own medical team, which has spent more than six months fighting to stifle the virus’s spread, while forcing the president to voice an adamant denial to any suggestion that the White House has given up on mitigation efforts.
“Absolutely the opposite,” Trump told reporters Monday after a campaign rally in Allentown, Pa., without mentioning Meadows. “We’ve done an incredible job.”
Meadows’s tone-deaf remarks also led some in the GOP to voice frustrations that the North Carolina Republican, who loves the media spotlight, had become the story — and a distraction undermining the party’s message at a crucial moment in the campaign cycle.
“I don’t know how much harm he is doing, but I certainly don’t think he is benefiting the president by using phrasing that has to be explained or defended later on,” said one Republican who served with Meadows in the House.
“It’s histrionic personality disorder. The people who know him best say there’s a problem.”
Sunday’s remarks followed another Meadows gaffe on Oct. 3, when he contradicted the White House physician’s assessment that Trump’s COVID-19 symptoms were improving. The chief of staff told reporters outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that the president had experienced a “very concerning” period and that the next 48 hours would be “critical.”
Meadows had asked reporters not to reveal his identity, but video footage revealed that he had provided the quote, angering Trump and prompting the president to cut a video of his own to counter the chief of staff’s remarks.
Meadows, a former congressman and chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, has also been seen as a major obstacle to a bipartisan deal on another round of coronavirus relief. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Democrats’ chief negotiator, refuses to deal with him, preferring Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin instead.
And this past weekend, damaging reports surfaced that Meadows had sought to conceal the news that Vice President Pence’s chief of staff and several other aides had contracted the virus. It marked the second COVID-19 outbreak in the White House in the past month.
The combination of eyebrow-raising episodes featuring Meadows has fueled Democratic accusations that Trump and his administration have intentionally downplayed the severity of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 225,000 people in the U.S., to help the president win reelection on Nov. 3.
Pelosi pounced on Meadows’s Sunday comments, saying such a sentiment “clearly explains why the White House has not embraced the science-based path to crush the virus.” And former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger, has seized on the opportunity to distinguish his anti-pandemic plan from that of the president.
“This wasn’t a slip by Meadows,” Biden said Sunday. “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.”
The blunders have also left Trump’s Republican allies scrambling to distance themselves from suggestions that the party has given up on efforts to diminish the spread of the virus, which is spiking in record numbers in the U.S. just days before voters go to the polls.
“I don’t know exactly what he meant by that statement. I do think we have some control. We all have,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the Senate Republican whip, said Sunday, referring to Meadows’s comments earlier that day. “And we all have responsibility as leaders to set an example that consists of doing the right things to stop the spread.”
Meadows on Monday tried to clean up his remarks from a day earlier, telling reporters at the White House that it’s Biden, not Trump, who has surrendered to the pandemic by promoting more aggressive mitigation efforts — steps many Republicans have warned pose a threat to the nation’s fragile economic recovery. In doing so, however, the chief of staff amplified the notion that the virus is virtually uncontrollable.
“When we look at this, we are going to defeat the virus,” Meadows said. “We’re not going to control it. We will try to contain it as best we can. If you look at the full context of what I was talking about, [it] is: We need to make sure we have therapeutic and vaccines.”
The 61-year-old Meadows has been a staunch loyalist and key political adviser to Trump ever since the president stunned Washington and captured the GOP nomination four years ago. As a congressman, Meadows was a ubiquitous presence at the White House and spoke to Trump by phone multiple times per week.
And as Trump’s top aide these past seven months — a tenure spanning the deadly pandemic — Meadows is almost always seen at the president’s side, whether in the Oval Office or as he campaigns around the country.
But in recent weeks there have been a spate of stories questioning if Meadows is on the outs with Trump. The president canned his first three chiefs of staff, most recently Mick Mulvaney, who came under fire after making a series of public gaffes himself.
Speaking at Monday’s rally in Allentown, Trump did not mention the controversy surrounding his current chief. But the president seemed to have the topic on his mind, going after Biden for the Obama administration’s response to the H1N1 virus in 2009. Last year, Biden’s former chief of staff, Ron Klain, said it was only “luck” that prevented that outbreak from killing many more Americans.
“You know, he’s talking about, ‘Oh, I would have done this with the pandemic.’ And yet … his chief of staff said … they were grossly incompetent, they had no idea what to do,” Trump told the crowd. “And now they’re telling us how to handle a much more lethal problem.”
“Amazing,” he added. “I wonder if that chief of staff is still around.”
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