(CNN) - With the pandemic exploding and setting record infection rates, President Donald Trump spent the weekend on his own often divisive obsessions, piling up new evidence for detractors who say he's not fit for office.
The President largely ignored the implications of the disastrous US government response to the worst public health crisis in 100 years, even though it emerged late on Friday in CNN reporting that the White House is taking vigorous efforts to protect him from infection at rallies that contravene social distancing and masking guidelines, and that put even his own supporters at risk of getting sick.
Trump did, however, find time to defend a statue of former President Andrew Jackson, who retired to his slave plantation in 1837, and to retweet a video in which a supporter chanted "white power." Trump denied reports that he was briefed that Russia offered a bounty for the killings of US and UK soldiers by the Taliban -- but didn't say how he would respond and stand up for American troops if the story was true. And Trump, who lambasted his predecessor Barack Obama for his less prolific golf hobby, made two trips to his Virginia course, despite boasting that he canceled a weekend trip to his New Jersey resort to make sure "law and order is enforced" in Washington, DC.
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Trump's weekend represented yet another sign that he has moved on from a pandemic, which has killed more than 125,000 Americans and threatens to claim tens of thousands more, that he initially ignored, then mismanaged and politicized and has now has grown tired of talking about as his reelection fight looms. His negligence came despite his Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar delivering an alarming warning on CNN that appeared to contradict Vice President Mike Pence's claim of "truly remarkable progress" in the battle against coronavirus and false statements that the US had "flattened the curve."
"This is a very, very serious situation and the window is closing for us to take action and get this under control," Azar told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union." But like other members of the administration, Azar insisted that the story of the pandemic is one of great success, in terms of making hospital beds, protective equipment and testing more available than they were two months ago.
Since Pence spoke on Friday, the United States racked up record numbers of new coronavirus infections, with more than 40,000 on Friday and more than 42,000 on Saturday. States like Florida, Texas and Arizona, which embraced Trump's demands for a swift economic opening and failed to satisfy the administration's own benchmarks to do so safely, are discovering that the virus is rampant. New cases are now rising in 36 states, are steady in 12 and are going down in just two, suggesting that the pandemic is close to raging out of control -- even as some US counterparts, like the European Union and Asian countries have been far more successful in reducing the virus.
Pence denies early opening caused resurgence
The Vice President traveled to Texas on Sunday and appeared alongside Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, and appeared to make a significant shift -- calling on Americans to wear masks if they cannot observe social distancing guidelines -- a step that Trump, who refuses to wear a mask and says that those who do are trying to hurt him politically, refuses to take.
"Wearing a mask is just a good idea and it will, we know, from experience, will slow the spread of the coronavirus," Pence said.
The vice president's comments, however painstakingly he tried to avoid putting Trump in a difficult position, will hike political pressure on the President to publicly call on Americans to cover their faces and to model a face mask himself. That political heat had intensified that morning when Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, effectively called on Trump to show leadership on the issue.
"If wearing masks is important, and all the health experts tell us that it is in containing the disease in 2020, it would help if from time to time the President would wear one to help us get rid of this political debate that says if you're for Trump, you don't wear a mask, if you're against Trump, you do," the Tennessee Republican said on CNN's "Inside Politics."
Apart from his remarks on masks, Pence heaped praise on the "leadership" of Trump and everyone involved in a misfiring government effort and made a new attempt to argue that the state openings had nothing to do with a rise in infections.
"About two weeks ago, something changed," Pence said, seeking to portray the Texas reopening plan before that date as a massive success.
Medical experts, however, say that states experiencing a spike in infections are now paying the price for a lax opening.
"If I were to give a grade for all of us, except maybe from a few states like, New York, Washington state, New Jersey, I would say we are getting mostly an 'F', right at the moment, going from the first part of May until we reopened until now," Dr. Michael Saag, professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told CNN on Sunday.
A new Russia storm
Reports that Moscow's GRU military intelligence agency put a bounty on US and UK troops in Afghanistan whipped up a new Russia storm for the White House.
The New York Times first cited unnamed officials as saying that Trump and Pence were briefed about the affair but had so far taken no action.
A US official with knowledge of the matter told CNN's Barbara Starr on Sunday that the US received intelligence several months ago that the GRU reached out to militias linked to the Taliban and offered money to target US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. The official said it was not clear how verified the intelligence was or who exactly the Russian representatives approached.
The Washington Post reported Sunday night that the bounties are believed to have resulted in the deaths of several American troops, citing US intelligence gathered from military interrogations. A European Intelligence official told CNN's Nick Paton Walsh on Saturday that the incentives offered by the Russians had, in their assessment, led to Coalition casualties.
Trump tweeted on Sunday that "everybody has been denying it & there have not been many attacks on us," but the President, who has consistently undermined efforts by his own administration to get tough on Russia, did not vow to defend American troops come what may or to get to the bottom of the report.
If the plot is genuine and Trump knew about it but did not act, he could be considered negligent in his duty to defend Americans and there would be new questions about his strange deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. If he was not informed, his entire national security process will be exposed.
Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, publicizing a book deeply critical of the President, said Sunday Trump's defense of himself exemplified his unfitness for office.
"The fact that the President feels compelled to tweet about the news story here shows that what his fundamental focus is, is not the security of our forces, but whether he looks like he wasn't paying attention. So he's saying, 'well nobody told me therefore you can't blame me,'" Bolton said on "State of the Union."
Trump retweets 'white power' chant
The President had his own definition of leadership on his mind for much of the weekend.
In one shocking moment, he thanked "great people" in a Florida retirement community for their support, retweeting a video showing a man in a golf court emblazoned with "Trump" banners chanting "white power." Trump later deleted the retweet with one of his spokesmen, Judd Deere, insisting that he "did not hear the one statement made on the video." Earlier, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator, said that the video was offensive and "indefensible."
Bolton told CNN's "Jake Tapper" that "not paying attention" would be typical of Trump. But it was only the latest occasion that the President has retweeted an item that tore at the nation's racial divides. Normal minimum standards of presidential conduct might suggest a commander-in-chief would check content before tweeting it to millions of supporters. On Saturday, Trump tweeted about an attempt to take down the statue of Jackson in Lafayette Park across from the White House last week, after signing an executive order that appeared merely to require his government to enforce the law protecting federally-owned monuments, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison for desecration. But Trump claimed credit anyway for stopping attacks on icons of Civil War generals and figures from America's history who have links to slavery or racial records newly exposed by a national reckoning after the death of George Floyd in police custody.
"Since imposing a very powerful 10 year prison sentence on those that Vandalize Monuments, Statues etc., with many people being arrested all over our Country, the Vandalism has completely stopped. Thank you!" Trump tweeted on Sunday.
By ignoring the pandemic but spending his time defending monuments and base names honoring Confederate generals, the President is actively using darker moments of America's history to try to stir up a culture war furor to solidify his political support as he lags behind Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden. His use of the word "heritage" invokes the suggestion that a traditional, White American culture is under siege from non-White protesters and radicals. He appears to be making a bet that such tactics, assurances that the coronavirus fight is over when it's not, and an assault on Biden's mental capacity will carry him over the line to reelection. The President's constant rebellion against his own government's advice on the pandemic -- for instance, the wearing of masks -- is part of the same approach designed to appeal to voters who long ago soured on what they see as liberal, elite values and the establishment's version of truth.
Biden on Sunday laid into the President in a tweet.
"Today the President shared a video of people shouting 'white power' and said they were 'great.' Just like he did after Charlottesville," Biden wrote.
"We're in a battle for the soul of the nation — and the President has picked a side. But make no mistake: it's a battle we will win."