WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, still being treated for COVID-19, abruptly ended talks with Democrats on an economic aid package on Tuesday, drawing criticism from presidential rival Joe Biden that he was abandoning Americans in the midst of a pandemic.
Trump’s tweet breaking off talks for a new round of stimulus spooked Wall Street, sending stocks down as much as 2% from their session highs and tarnishing one of the metrics that the Republican president has touted as a sign of his success.
Along with Democrat Biden, the former vice president whom he will face in the Nov. 3 U.S. election, congressional Democrats and some Republicans blasted Trump, saying more was needed to help the millions who have lost their jobs in a crisis in which the United States leads the world in deaths and infections.
“The president turned his back on you,” Biden said in a Twitter post.
Late Tuesday, Trump in a series of tweets urged Congress to quickly pass $25 billion in funding for passenger airlines, $135 billion for small businesses and provide $1,200 stimulus checks for Americans. “I am ready to sign right now,” Trump wrote.
Trump, 74, returned to the White House on Monday after three nights at a hospital to be treated for the novel coronavirus. His doctor said on Tuesday that Trump reported no COVID-19 symptoms and was doing “extremely well.”
But the disease continues to spread among Trump’s top aides, with White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller saying he tested positive on Tuesday.
The top U.S. military leaders are also isolating after the Coast Guard’s No. 2 tested positive for the disease, Pentagon officials said.
Officials said Trump was working from makeshift office space in the residence rather than the Oval Office, with few senior staff given face-to-face access exactly four weeks before the U.S. election in which he is seeking a second term.
In his first major policy pronouncement since leaving the hospital, Trump called off talks with Democratic lawmakers on coronavirus relief legislation until after the election, even as cases are on the rise across much of the country.
“I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Despite Trump’s bravado, support for Biden has grown by about 4 percentage points since mid-September, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling from Friday to Tuesday, with 52% of likely voters backing Biden versus 40% for Trump.
Speaking at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of one of the U.S. Civil War’s bloodiest battles, Biden said the country was experiencing “total unrelenting partisan warfare” and, without naming Trump, faulted his handling of the disease.
“Wearing a mask isn’t a political statement. It’s a scientific recommendation,” he said, alluding to Trump’s reluctance to wear a mask even after falling ill. On his return to the White House, Trump removed his mask to pose for pictures.
‘FORGET ABOUT HIM’
Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed Trump’s comment, saying he would lose the election and Congress would pass stimulus during the “lame-duck” session when a president awaits replacement by his successor.
“Forget about him. Four weeks, six, seven hours from now, lame duck,” she said in an online conversation on Tuesday evening with journalist Jonathan Capehart, using a term that also denotes the dwindling powers of a departing president.
Republican Senator Susan Collins, in a tight re-election battle in Maine, called Trump’s decision to end the talks a “huge mistake.”
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said he agreed with Trump, telling reporters that “his view was that they were not going to produce a result and we need to concentrate on what’s achievable.”
Democrats’ chances of capturing a Senate majority inched higher in recent days as three nonpartisan U.S. elections analysts added Lindsey Graham’s South Carolina seat to the list of what are now 10 Senate seats in play, which includes eight potentially vulnerable Republicans and two vulnerable Democrats.
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in that chamber.
McConnell plans to focus on pushing through the confirmation of Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, which would cement a 6-3 conservative majority.
Trump, who said on Friday he had tested positive for the coronavirus, after months of minimizing the deadly infection, continued to play it down and garnered rebukes from Facebook and Twitter for spreading misinformation.
“Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!” Trump wrote on Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter Inc responded by putting a warning label on the post, saying it included potentially misleading information. Facebook Inc removed the Trump post for breaking its rules on COVID-19 misinformation, according to CNN.
The United States has the world’s highest death toll from the pandemic, with more than 210,000 deaths. By comparison, influenza typically kills between 22,000 and 64,000 people a year in the United States, U.S. government statistics show.
Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious diseases expert, said the rash of White House infections could have been avoided.
“Take a look at what happened this week at the White House. … Every day that goes by, more people are popping up that are infected,” he told American University’s Kennedy Political Union in a webcast interview. “That could have been prevented.”
Trump, who has not been seen in public since Monday night and has no public events scheduled on Wednesday, tweeted that he looked forward to a second debate with Biden set for Oct. 15 in Miami.
Biden told reporters, however, that if Trump “still has COVID, we shouldn’t have a debate.”
“President Trump will be healthy and will be there,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “There’s no getting out of this one for Biden.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper, David Morgan, Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, Patricia Zengerle, Doina Chiacu, David Shepardson and Mohammad Zargham in Washington, by Deena Beasley in Los Angeles and Trevor Hunnicutt in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Writing by Alistair Bell and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Scott Malone, Howard Goller and Peter Cooney)