WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – President-elect Joe Biden pleaded with Americans on Wednesday to take steps to remain safe over the Thanksgiving holiday as COVID-19 cases soar, while President Donald Trump pardoned a former aide who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Biden gave a presidential-style speech acknowledging people’s fatigue with restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic, but urged them to exercise caution as caseloads surge.
“I know the country has grown weary of the fight. We need to remember – we’re at war with the virus, not with one another,” Biden said as he urged Americans to forgo the type of big family gatherings normally associated with Thursday’s holiday, wear protective masks and maintain social distancing.
The Democratic former vice president again said he would take immediate steps to address the coronavirus pandemic when he takes office on Jan. 20. During the campaign, Biden accused Trump, a Republican, of panicking and surrendering in the face of a public health crisis.
Shortly after Biden spoke, Trump pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the former Russian ambassador in Washington.
It marked the latest instance in which Trump has used his power of executive clemency to benefit a friend or associate.
Prominent Democrats responded quickly and angrily.
“President Trump’s pardoning of Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his dealings with a foreign adversary, is an act of grave corruption and a brazen abuse of power,” House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
More than 261,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, with the daily toll on Tuesday surpassing 2,000 for the first time since May, as infections and hospitalizations surge nationally. The United States leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Biden said the United States faced “a long hard winter” but that it was during the most difficult circumstances that “the soul of our nation has been forged.”
He said he hoped the recent positive news on vaccine development – the first shots potentially could be made available to some Americans within weeks – would serve as an incentive for people to take simple steps to get the virus under control.
Since winning the Nov. 3 election, Biden has offered a message of healing and reconciliation after Trump’s tumultuous term, while the president still refuses to concede and falsely claimed again on Wednesday that Biden’s victory was stolen.
Without mentioning Trump, Biden addressed the messy aftermath of the vote.
“Our democracy was tested this year,” Biden said. “In America, we have full and fair and free elections and then we honor the results. The people of this nation and the laws of the land won’t stand for anything else.”
Biden plans next week to name his choices for some important positions in his administration, including his economic team, his communications director, Kate Bedingfield, said. They are expected to include former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as Treasury secretary.
Trump’s administration gave the green light on Monday to formal transition efforts even as he continues to make unsubstantiated claims of voting fraud. As a result, Biden will begin receiving presidential daily intelligence briefings.
Bedingfield said Biden’s team had been encouraged by the “professional and welcoming response” of civil servants.
Trump has waged a failed legal battle to overturn the election results. The outgoing president on Wednesday canceled a trip to accompany his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to a meeting of Republican state legislators in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Giuliani repeated his unsubstantiated allegations of voting fraud.
Trump spoke to the participants by speaker phone, repeating his debunked claims that the election had been stolen, drawing cheers from the partisan crowd.
“This election was lost by the Democrats. They cheated. It was a fraudulent election,” Trump said, without offering evidence.
In addition to beating Trump by 306-232 in the Electoral College, Biden won the nationwide popular vote by more than 6.1 million ballots.
Bedingfield called the Gettysburg event “a sideshow.” State and federal officials have said there is no evidence of large-scale fraud.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro rejected Trump’s claims.
“The sitting president’s remarks today were devoid of reality,” Shapiro, a Democrat, said on Twitter. “The election is over. Pennsylvania has certified results & declared Joe Biden the winner of our Commonwealth. Lying through a cell phone at a fake hearing changes nothing.”
(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Jeff Mason, Makini Brice, Alexandra Alper, Eric Beech, Michael Martina, Susan Heavey, John Whitesides and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Will Dunham and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone, Michelle Price and Peter Cooney)