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Trump, Biden clash intensifies over COVID-19 response

The battle over sharply different responses to the coronavirus is escalating between President TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE and Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFear of insider attack prompts additional FBI screening of National Guard troops: AP Iran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries MORE, with Democrats pointing to the heavy death toll and Republicans projecting optimism.

With the election drawing near, the vastly different approaches to COVID-19 are veering further apart even as scrutiny rises.

Biden, who often wears a mask in public, has called on every governor to mandate facial coverings. Trump, meanwhile, has pushed back on mask requirements, rarely wears one himself and gave his GOP convention speech at the White House to a largely maskless crowd of hundreds of people on the South Lawn.

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Biden said he would support another “shutdown” to fight the virus if scientists recommended it. Trump, who opposes more lockdowns, attacked his rival’s willingness to even entertain the idea.

The president has taken some steps to scale up protective equipment and testing production but has repeatedly downplayed the need for more testing and shifted supply responsibility to governors. Biden has called for a federal mobilization modeled after production efforts during World War II to scale up testing and for harnessing the full powers of the Defense Production Act to manufacture more protective equipment.

Biden’s campaign has called for “specific evidence-based guidance” on when to open and close different businesses and schools. Trump supported the initial round of restrictions earlier this year before transitioning to urging reopenings and tweeting a call to “LIBERATE” certain states and to “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!”

The pandemic has upended almost every aspect of life in the U.S. and caused massive economic damage while killing more than 180,000 people and infecting more than 5.8 million in the country, thrusting it to the forefront of the presidential race.

Democrats say those numbers speak for themselves and the death toll compared to other countries only underscores Trump’s poor leadership in a time of crisis.

“This election is fundamentally a referendum on Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic,” said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist who directs the Coronavirus War Room, a group seeking to highlight Trump’s failings on the virus.

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“That’s fundamentally the choice,” he added. “Donald Trump has not taken this virus seriously. Joe Biden is and has.”

Public health experts are in broad agreement that the U.S. is faring much worse than other developed countries.

Biden tweeted a graphic this week showing that the U.S. has 4 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its coronavirus cases.

“President Trump has failed our nation,” Biden wrote.

Trump has sought to counter those attacks by striking an optimistic tone, with a particular focus on rapid progress toward a vaccine.

“It's going to be announced, I believe, very, very soon,” Trump said of a vaccine last month.

He has also sought to portray Biden as overly restrictive in his proposed response, characterizing a potential Biden administration as one that would harm the economy while infringing on personal freedom. 

Trump seized on Biden’s comment to ABC News this month that he would support another shutdown if scientists recommended it.

“Joe Biden wants to inflict a painful shutdown on the entire country,” Trump said in his speech Thursday night accepting the Republican nomination.

And while saying he recommends that people wear masks, Trump hit Biden for supporting mandatory orders.

“We want to have a certain freedom,” Trump said this month.

Democrats say Trump is misreading the electorate by trying to argue Biden would go overboard in fighting a deadly virus that has ravaged the economy and everyday life for almost half a year.

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“The American public wants to err on the side of caution,” wrote Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to former President Obama, earlier this week. “They want to do more, not less, to get the virus under control.”

Pfeiffer added that Biden’s openness to another shutdown “was not only good policy, it was good politics” while noting that Biden said he would support one only if experts recommended it.

Republican strategist Doug Heye, though, said Biden’s answer “gave oxygen to Trump at a time that he didn’t have much.”

More broadly, though, Heye said the raging pandemic is a “huge liability” for Trump.

The Republican message, he said, is now “‘Were you better off in January than you were four Januaries ago?’ which is a more difficult message than ‘Are you better off today?’”

An aggregation of multiple polls, from FiveThirtyEight, finds that 58 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, compared with 39 percent who approve.

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A large majority of Americans, 76 percent, supported state laws to require masks in an NPR-Ipsos poll in late July, while a somewhat smaller majority, 59 percent, said they would support a nationwide two-week stay-at-home order.

Trump’s pressure on public health agencies has led to concerns that he or his allies could also exert influence over the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve a vaccine before Election Day, even if it isn’t ready.

Democrats and public health experts have already expressed alarm at the political pressure on the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Just in the past week, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn walked back an overstatement of the benefits of a new treatment, convalescent plasma, while the CDC said asymptomatic people no longer need to be tested, before later clarifying the move amid a firestorm from experts.

Biden seized on the confusion and backlash but pointed the finger of blame at Trump.

“Look at all the confidence people are losing in anything he has to say,” Biden said on CNN on Thursday. “Going from inject bleach all the way to we don't need this testing, we don't have to test people. It's just absolutely bizarre.”