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Walloped by pandemic and controversy, Trump faces political turmoil
[WASHINGTON] Pummeled from all sides, US President Donald Trump appears increasingly desperate to turn the page on the unrelenting coronavirus pandemic eating away at his prospects for re-election in November.
"Great News on Vaccines!" he tweeted on Wednesday, striking a hopeful note.
But the reality is stubborn and sobering: 136,900 Americans have perished, confirmed new cases are on the rise in 40 out of 50 states, California announced on Monday it was re-shuttering parts of its massive economy, and Mr Trump is clashing with health experts tasked with fighting the crisis.
With infection rates that have taken radically different trajectories than those in Europe, the United States is in bad shape - and the president appears to be dodging the subject.
At a Tuesday press conference where he denounced China but also vilified his Democratic rival Joe Biden, Trump barely mentioned the government's efforts to stem the Covid-19 outbreaks.
On Wednesday he traveled to Atlanta - not to visit the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention for an update on the pandemic response as cases spike in Georgia and elsewhere, but to deliver a speech on modernising America's infrastructure.
His attempt to discredit respected infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci, who has bluntly warned that the US strategy against the virus is faltering, has flopped.
Even some voices within his own camp are urging the president to tackle the problem more seriously rather than blame scapegoats.
"We don't have a Dr Fauci problem," stressed Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. "I think any effort to undermine him is not going to be productive."
OBAMA WEIGHS IN
The White House has sought to calm the waters, even as one of its own sowed new confusion.
In an opinion piece on Tuesday in USA Today, Mr Trump's chief trade advisor Peter Navarro attacked Dr Fauci with renewed animosity, writing that "Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on."
The administration rushed to mop up the mess, saying Mr Navarro bypassed normal White House channels when he published his op-ed.
Mr Trump himself castigated his advisor.
Navarro "made a statement representing himself. He shouldn't be doing that," Mr Trump told reporters.
"We're all on the same team, including Dr Fauci."
But Mr Trump and the White House have repeatedly criticised Dr Fauci in recent weeks.
Dr Fauci described the efforts as "bizarre," telling The Atlantic magazine that "ultimately, it hurts the president to do that."
Amid the hubbub, Barack Obama weighed in with an appeal for apolitical action.
"The latest data offers a tragic reminder that the virus doesn't care about spin or ideology," the 44th president tweeted on Wednesday without naming the 45th, but clearly referring to Mr Trump.
"The best thing we can do for our economy is to deal with our public health crisis," Mr Obama added.
Mr Biden, for eight years Mr Obama's deputy, appears content to run a minimal campaign with few public appearances, but he nevertheless has sought to seize the momentum from a flailing Trump.
Enjoying favourable polling, including in some traditionally Republican states, Mr Biden denounced Mr Trump for his "complete and utter failure" to combat Covid-19, as he shifts his own electoral strategy.
On Tuesday, Mr Biden aired his first campaign ad in Texas, a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1976 but where polls now put him in a dead heat with Mr Trump.
"I know the rise in (coronavirus) case numbers is causing fear and apprehension," Mr Biden says over images of masked emergency responders, and loved ones communicating via webcast or through glass.
"If you're sick, if you're struggling... I will not abandon you."
There is palpable concern in the Republican camp. Mr Biden leads Mr Trump by nine percentage points in national polling, according to an aggregate compiled by RealClearPolitics.
The Democratic challenger, 77, is also ahead in at least five of the major swing states that could decide the election: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Mr Trump for his part is sticking to a limited line of attack: portraying his opponent as a listless old man easily manipulated by the "radical left."
But the 74-year-old Trump committed his own slip of the tongue on Tuesday when he said Mr Biden had been pulled to "the right" by Bernie Sanders, the leftist who fought him for the Democratic nomination.