But many Republicans continue to dismiss calls for alarm about the virus’s spread — and for changes to the party’s message on the pandemic.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who tested positive last week, said in an interview with a conservative talk-show host that there is “a level of unjustifiable hysteria” about a virus that has killed nearly 210,000 Americans and asked, “Why do we think we actually can stop the progression of a contagious disease?”
Johnson added that “from day one, we never should have gone through the shutdowns” and said, “We’ve got to carry on with our lives.”
Johnson’s remarks came as Trump’s doctors asserted that he could be discharged from the hospital Monday, baffling infectious-disease experts, and then he later left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Trump played down the threat of the disease on Monday, tweeting: “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign plowed ahead with planning for rallies with large crowds, with Vice President Pence scheduled to campaign Thursday in Arizona. Thousands of attendees at similar events this year have frequently flouted federal guidelines on masks and social distancing.
“This begins at the top,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution. “Unless the president announces and underscores a change of course, I don’t believe the administration or rank-and-file members of his party are going to change more than marginally.”
Galston said Trump has made the pandemic a “culture and identity issue, and culture and identity are much harder to shift than policy.”
Some GOP strategists said many Republicans are deeply shaped by the skepticism about the guidelines and the danger of the virus that is promulgated daily by conservative media stars and echoed by the president’s core voters, creating a culture in the party where loyalty to Trump’s approach is the rule.
“They have to replace the party’s elephant logo with a cowering politician who’s afraid of Trump,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP consultant and Trump critic. “Whatever the Fox News, Trump line is about covid-19 being some snowflake thing is what they end up saying. The grip is still there.”
The political cost of the GOP’s seemingly unflinching posture on the pandemic is unclear. The latest diagnoses inside the White House and the party have thrust its response to the pandemic back to the fore of this year’s campaign after months of Republicans seeking to pull the spotlight toward other issues.
In the House, three Minnesota Republicans who flew commercially Friday — Reps. Pete Stauber, Tom Emmer and Jim Hagedorn — have been criticized for doing so one day after Trump tested positive and after flying on Air Force One with the president Wednesday.
And from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was spotted on a flight Friday without a mask after being in Capitol meetings with infected senators, to Johnson — who attended a GOP-hosted Oktoberfest event in Wisconsin last week after being tested for the virus but before he was informed of his positive result — Republicans’ conduct is now under increasing scrutiny.
Wisconsin has experienced a record number of new virus cases as temperatures have dropped.
Wicker’s spokesman said he “lowered his face mask to eat a snack and forgot to put it back up.” When he was reminded by a flight attendant he put the mask up, the spokesman said, and he has not been in contact with people who have tested positive.
Democrats see a party consumed by Trump and in lockstep with his view of the virus, sharing his distaste for face coverings and social distancing.
“For the future and safety of our fellow citizens, I implore my Republican colleagues to join Democrats in taking this seriously. Wear a mask. Social distance. Follow the science, CDC guidance, and listen to experts,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). “Your actions now can still set an example, and it may very well save the lives of some of your supporters, colleagues and leaders, too.”
Yet there was muted acknowledgment Monday by one prominent Republican running for reelection that Trump’s handling of the pandemic has included missteps, reflecting the way embattled candidates are uneasily navigating a party that is dominated by Trump and sliding in the polls.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board that Trump “let his guard down” on the pandemic.
“I think in his desire to try to demonstrate that we are somehow coming out of this and that the danger is not still with us — I think he got out over his skis, and frankly, I think it’s a lesson to all of us that we need to exercise self-discipline,” Cornyn said.
The GOP-controlled Senate is confronting its own challenges as Johnson and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) isolate following positive tests for the coronavirus. Some senators, such as Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), age 87 and third in the line of succession as the Senate’s president pro tempore, have declined to be tested despite being in the same vicinity as Lee.
“Sen. Grassley’s doctors have not recommended he be tested as he has not come into close contact with anyone suspected of having or confirmed to have coronavirus,” Grassley spokesman Michael Zona said in a statement to the Des Moines Register.
On Monday, Tillis’s office said the senator, who is facing a tough reelection race and has fallen behind his Democratic challenger in recent polls, is “no longer exhibiting any symptoms.”
Despite the three positive tests in his ranks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday the Senate was “going ahead with the full, thorough and timely confirmation process” to install Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court before Election Day — an effort that only days ago was seen by Republicans as a crowning achievement in an otherwise difficult year. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to begin hearings Oct. 12.
Johnson, speaking Monday in the radio interview with host Ross Kaminsky of Denver-based KHOW, said he is prepared to wear a “moon suit” if necessary to cast a vote to confirm Barrett.
“I’ve already told leadership, I’ll go in in a moon suit,” Johnson said. “We think this is pretty important. I think people can be fairly confident that Mitch McConnell is dedicated to holding this vote.”
In the interview, Johnson also said he is feeling “perfectly fine” but is “in total isolation” since testing positive.
The Republican from Wisconsin repeatedly said he is “not downplaying covid,” while at the same time arguing that “the press has done such a good job in ingraining in almost everybody’s brain that if you get covid, it’s a death sentence. It’s not.”
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who is in a competitive special election race, tweeted a video that showed Trump, at a wrestling match, pummeling an individual with a digitally edited and spiky covid-19 particle for a head.
“Covid stood no chance against @realDonald Trump,” she tweeted.
In his remarks Monday, McConnell, who had polio as a child, offered a far more somber assessment of the virus and its devastating toll than Trump’s message not to be afraid.
“The standard cliche would say these past few days have provided a stark reminder of the danger of this terrible virus. But the truth is that our nation did not need any such reminder,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “More than 209,000 of our fellow citizens have lost their lives. Millions have battled illness or had their lives disrupted by positive tests. . . . We all need to remain vigilant. We all need to remain careful.”
Elsewhere, key Republicans isolating on Monday after recently testing positive for the coronavirus included Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. Other Trump advisers — such as former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie — have also tested positive.