White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Monday rejected Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s assertion that the Trump administration was waving a white flag in its fight against the coronavirus — but nevertheless doubled down on his controversial acknowledgment that the United States would not “control” the pandemic.
“The only person waving a white flag, along with his white mask, is Joe Biden,” a maskless Meadows told reporters outside the White House on Monday morning. “I mean, when we look at this, we’re going to defeat the virus. We’re not going to control it. We will try to contain it as best we can.”
Meadows went on to defend remarks he made on Sunday in an interview with CNN, during which he said the U.S. was “not going to control the pandemic,” but would instead “control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas.”
The concession from President Donald Trump’s top aide — which came shortly after news of another White House coronavirus outbreak among the staff of Vice President Mike Pence — was quickly criticized by congressional Democrats and some Republicans, as well as Biden’s campaign.
“This wasn’t a slip by Meadows,” Biden said in a statement on Sunday. “It was a candid acknowledgment of what President Trump’s strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis: to wave the white flag of defeat and hope that by ignoring it, the virus would simply go away. It hasn’t, and it won’t.”
Meadows insisted on Monday that the “full context” of his remarks referred to the “need to make sure that we have therapeutics and vaccines” to treat Covid-19. He also said that administration officials were “very hopeful, based on a number of conversations, that vaccines are just a few weeks away, and we’re in preparation for that.”
But public health experts have warned that a coronavirus vaccine likely will not be widely accessible until the second half of 2021. And even if a vaccine is authorized on a narrow basis for a subset of health care workers and vulnerable Americans, several leading candidates require two doses that would be administered weeks apart.
The late-stage phase three clinical trials for potential coronavirus vaccines enroll tens of thousands of participants and take months to complete. The first few candidates are not expected to file for emergency use until late November at the earliest.
“At the same time,” Meadows added on Monday, “a national lockdown strategy or a national quarantine strategy that is proposed by the left is not effective [and] is not what ultimately [will] contain or control this virus. So any suggestion that we’re waving … the white flag is certainly not in keeping with this president.”
Although Biden said in an August interview with ABC News that he would reinstate widespread lockdown orders if scientists recommended he do so as president, he clarified at a news conference last month that he meant he would simply “follow the science.” He also said there is “going to be no need, in my view, to … shut down the whole economy.”
Other high-ranking White House aides mobilized on Monday morning in an effort to explain the chief of staff’s remarks, with senior adviser Jared Kushner arguing the pandemic could not be thwarted by even the most restrictive public health measures.
“You have places where they’ve been locked down and it’s spread. You have places where it’s been open and it’s spread. And I think that, ultimately, we have to have a balanced approach,” Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, told Fox News.
Kushner echoed Meadows’ optimistic rhetoric about the timeline for a potential coronavirus vaccine, saying the U.S. has many candidates “that are very, very close to getting to the end of their trials … that we believe will help us bring an end to the pandemic.”
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow also emphasized in a Fox News interview that the U.S. is “getting closer and closer to a vaccine,” while contending that Meadows was actually alluding to the importance of mitigation strategies in his remarks over the weekend.
“I think that’s where the chief was going,” he said.
David Lim and Sarah Owermohle contributed to this report.