The setup reflected the broader politicization of the pandemic that has become entrenched as Trump nears his departure date and President-elect Joe Biden prepares to replace him. Trump has retreated from regularly discussing the pandemic and rarely appears alongside medical professionals. Meanwhile, Biden has made the pandemic a central plank of almost all public appearances and on Tuesday appeared in Wilmington, Del., alongside many of his incoming top health care aides.
The result was essentially a Tuesday split screen: Trump’s overly optimistic “I told you so” predictions versus Biden’s “we’ll get there, but it will be tough” message.
In Washington, Trump vowed: “We think by spring we will be in a position nobody would have believed possible just a few months ago,” he said. “They say it’s somewhat of a miracle, and I think that’s true.”
But in Wilmington, Biden warned: The country is “in a very dark winter” — a nod to the record-breaking case surge — and “things may well get worse before they get better.”
The White House event was predicated as a signing ceremony for an executive order designed to pressure vaccine manufacturers to prioritize shipments within the U.S. over other countries — although the order didn’t appear to have any legal teeth.
The gathering opened with a video castigating media pundits, Biden and Fauci for offering more cautious assessments of the vaccine development timeline.
President Donald Trump hands a pen to Vice President Mike Pence after signing an executive order on vaccine distribution Tuesday. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo
“Very few people thought this was possible,” Trump said during the event. “Of course they’ll be saying now, ‘We always told you it would be so,’ but we have them saying a little bit different.”
But many of the remarks the video highlighted were misleadingly portrayed. Fauci, for instance, was shown saying a vaccine arrival “could be January, could be later,” a statement that is largely true, especially for the majority of the population. Biden was also shown saying there is “no prospect” for the majority of the public to get a vaccine before the middle of 2021, a timeline that mostly tracks with the tentative rollout schedule.
Meanwhile, in Delaware, Fauci appeared via video at the Biden event, which also featured the president-elect’s top incoming health staffers.
In a pre-recorded message, Fauci cautioned that “the road ahead will not be easy. We have got a lot of hard and demanding work to do in the next year.”
He also offered what could be interpreted as an implicit rebuke of the incumbent president’s messaging throughout the public health crisis.
“In the fight against this pandemic, we must lead with science,” Fauci said, adding that “a key piece of our ongoing work is communicating consistently with the American people.”
Vivek Murthy, Biden’s choice to again become surgeon general, highlighted the “fear, anxiety, anger and distrust that so many Americans are feeling right now.”
And Rochelle Walensky, his pick to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggested that “the nation is coding” like a hospitalized patient in critical condition.
Back in Washington, the president was effusive in his praise of Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s initiative to speed vaccine development. The effort passed a major milestone Tuesday morning when the Food and Drug Administration released a positive analysis of the safety and efficacy of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine as it pursues emergency authorization for its drug.
One of the people Trump gave kudos to at the event was Moncef Slaoui, who the president selected in May to help accelerate vaccine research. Yet earlier in the day, Slaoui had distanced himself from Trump’s executive order.
“We feel that we can deliver the vaccines as needed, so I don’t know exactly what this order is about,” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
It is uncertain how enforceable Trump’s executive order will be, as drugmakers have already made initial agreements to deliver supplies to various countries. During his press conference, Trump referenced the Defense Production Act — a law that lets the government mandate production of certain materials in a crisis — and claimed the government had the ability to force the issue.
“We don’t think it will be necessary,” the president said. “If it is, it’s a very powerful act.”
Trump also strayed from the topic of the event during a brief Q&A with reporters, once again airing his false assertions that he won reelection and encouraging others to find the “courage” to overturn the results and award him a second term.
“If somebody has the courage, I know who the next administration will be,” Trump said.
Courts across the country have repeatedly rejected the Trump campaign’s attempts to challenge the results of the election in several battleground states that Trump lost to Biden, though the president has continued to keep up the fight and raise money for his political efforts.