WASHINGTON – Making his first remarks on the latest grim milestone in the nation's battle with coronavirus, President Donald Trump on Tuesday lamented the loss of 200,000 Americans who have died from the disease, describing it as "a shame."
"It's a horrible thing," Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House as he left for a rally in Pennsylvania. "It should have never, ever happened."
"It’s a shame," he added.
But speaking later at a rally in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, Trump mocked his Democratic opponent Joe Biden for wearing a face mask – something his own administration has recommended – and asserted that his administration had done an "A-plus job" dealing with the pandemic.
During 90 minutes of remarks, Trump did not mention the death toll from the virus but instead blamed China for allowing it to become a pandemic, promised a vaccine will be widely available for Americans soon and criticized social distancing measures approved by state officials that his own public health experts have called for.
"You can't meet. You can't congregate. You can't look at each other," he said. "You can't give your wife...a kiss goodnight, you gotta wear a mask. You can't do anything!"
As the nation surpassed another dark benchmark, Trump glossed over earlier predictions that if the number of deaths in the U.S. peaked at around 200,000 people that would indicate his administration had "done a very good job."
"And so, if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 – that’s a horrible number – maybe even less, but to 100,000; so we have between 100- and 200,000 – we all, together, have done a very good job," Trump said at the White House on March 30.
Addressing those earlier projections, Trump said Tuesday at the White House that "the original numbers were around 200,000 if you do it right, if you did a good job and if the public worked along. And if you didn't do it right you'd be at two million, two-and-a-half million."
At another point during his brief back and forth with reporters on the South Lawn, Trump asked a questioner to remove her mask. When she asked why he hadn't spoken about the death toll, Trump demurred: "Go ahead. Anybody else?"
Trump's visit to Pennsylvania was sandwiched between additional two seismic political events: Republicans largely coalescing around a plan to move quickly on Trump's Supreme Court nominee to fill the seat left vacant by the death last week of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the first presidential debate with Biden, set for Tuesday, Sept. 29.
Trump mentioned the debate briefly on the rally stage, saying that Biden had "been doing it all his life" and adding that "I’ve just started doing this stuff."
Trump carried Pennsylvania by just more than 44,000 votes in 2016. Polls show Biden with a a slim margin there: 4 points in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls. Trump, speaking at an outdoor rally at Pittsburgh International Airport, was making his fourth visit to the critical battleground this month.
Biden argued that the trip should serve as a reminder of the state of current economic conditions under the Trump presidency.
"Four years ago, candidate Donald Trump promised the hardworking people of Pittsburgh he would bring jobs back to the region," Biden said in a statement. "But since then, President Trump has only brought Pittsburgh economic turmoil under his watch."
The president has sought to project an image of returning to normal with his rallies, but they have drawn criticism from local public health officials.
Trump has ramped up his campaign presence since formally accepting the GOP nomination, attending 10 rallies since late August and a handful of other rally-like events. Most of those events have been held outdoors, though he has faced criticism for holding a few indoor events during a recent swing through the Southwest.
His supporters at those events rarely practice social distancing or wear masks.
Trump has been at odds in recent days with members of his administration on the vaccine timeline. Trump has said every American will have access to a vaccine by April, but health officials note no vaccine has been approved yet and CDC officials have predicted a vaccine won't be widely available until the summer or fall of next year.
"The fact that we have come nowhere near that number is a testament to this president taking immediate action," Kayleigh McEnany said earlier in the day, referring to the estimates that as many as 2 million could die from the virus."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump on 200,000 COVID-19 deaths: 'It's a shame'