Donald Trump has come closer than ever to admitting that he lost the US presidential election, suggesting “time will tell” but stopping short of a formal concession to president-elect Joe Biden.
In his first public remarks since his defeat was announced, Trump appeared to catch himself making a slip of the tongue as he discussed the possibility of a Biden administration imposing a national lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
“Ideally we won’t go to a lockdown,” the president told reporters in the White House Rose Garden. “I will not go – this administration will not be going to a lockdown. Hopefully the – whatever happens in the future, who knows which administration will be.”
Trump added: “I guess time will tell. But I can tell you this administration will not go to a lockdown.”
Biden was proclaimed the winner of the election last Saturday, a result Trump has refused to acknowledge while launching legal challenges based on unsubstantiated claims of fraud. The homeland security department on Thursday declared it the most secure election in US history with no evidence of votes being compromised or altered.
The president had issued dozens tweets and retweets but had not been seen in public except for a Veterans’ Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. It was the longest spell the American people had gone without hearing him speak since he took office.
Finally, on Friday, Trump held a press conference at the White House to provide an update on Operation Warp Speed, the effort to create a vaccine for Covid-19. The event, attended by Vice-President Mike Pence and coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx, took place one day after the US set a single-day record of more than 160,000 new cases.
Trump said he expects a vaccine to be available for the entire population as soon as April and an emergency use authorisation for Pfizer’s vaccine “extremely soon”. Pfizer has said it expects to report required safety data next week and can then apply for an emergency use authorisation.
Although he appeared deflated, his hair grey instead of its customary blond, Trump still dived into familiar territory, boasting about economic recovery and settling scores with one of his political foes, New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
The government would not deliver a coronavirus vaccine to New York state if and when it becomes available, Trump said, because the state has promised to do its own review to ensure their safety.
Cuomo “doesn’t trust where the vaccine is coming from”, Trump complained. “These are coming from the greatest companies anywhere in the world, greatest labs in the world, but he doesn’t trust the fact that it’s this White House, this administration, so we won’t be delivering it to New York until we have authorisation to do so and that pains me to say that.”
Cuomo dismissed the attack. In an interview on MSNBC, the governor said: “None of what he said is true, surprise surprise. We’re all excited about the possibilities about a vaccine. It’s not that people don’t trust the vaccine companies, the pharmaceutical companies. Pfizer’s a great New York company, Regeneron is a great New York company.
“But an overwhelming percentage of Americans are worried about political interference in the vaccination process, in the approval process, by the president. The American people trust the drug company more than they trust the president.”
Criticism of the administration’s response to the virus, which has killed more than 243,000 in the US, became a central argument for Biden ahead of the 3 November election. There have been more than 100,000 new confirmed cases reported daily for more than a week. The secret service is experiencing a significant number, many believed to be linked to Trump’s rallies in the closing days of the campaign.
Biden has devoted most of his public remarks to encouraging Americans to wear a mask and view the coronavirus as a threat with no regard for political allegiance. He has not endorsed a nationwide shutdown but appealed for Trump to take “urgent action”.
“The crisis does not respect dates on the calendar. It is accelerating right now,” he said in a statement on Friday.
Public health experts have warned that Trump’s refusal to take aggressive action or to coordinate with the Biden team will only worsen the effects of the virus and hinder the nation’s ability to swiftly distribute a vaccine next year.
Yet Trump continues to stall the presidential transition. When an interviewer on Fox Business suggested that it would look sad if Trump does not attend the inauguration on 20 January, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany replied: “I think the president will attend his own inauguration. He would have to be there, in fact.”
There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the election. Officials from both political parties have stated publicly that the election went well, and international observers confirmed there were no serious irregularities. Trump’s legal team continues to pursue election lawsuits that have gained little traction in the courts.