WHITE HOUSE - Amid the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump attracted a crowd of thousands to his latest political rally at a North Carolina airport Tuesday evening.
Trump marveled at a crowd he said totaled 15,000 people –- a number that reporters on site said was exaggerated.
The rally was attended by 14,600 people and several thousand more either wanted to attend or were nearby, according to a senior administration official who spoke to reporters on Air Force One on the flight back from North Carolina.
Journalists also noted the lack of social distancing among those seated and standing. Many of the attendees did not wear masks and some who did let them droop down below their noses.
It was a crowd clearly in defiance of state guidance limiting outdoor mass gatherings to 50 people with social distancing and cloth face coverings.
Trump contended again on Tuesday that his campaign has found a loophole to avoid violating such state regulations because “we decided to call all our rallies peaceful protests” – a reference to criticism from those on the right that some anti-racism protesters amid the pandemic have been hypocritical by not wearing masks.
The president contrasted his rallies with those of challenger Joe Biden, mocking the socially distancing circles in gymnasiums that have been a feature of the Democratic Party nominee’s relatively few appearances.
“Did you ever see the gyms with the circles? That’s his crowds,” Trump said.
It was Trump’s third visit to North Carolina in two weeks. He won the state by four points in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, but polls show him virtually tied in the state with Biden.
The former vice president did not make a public appearance on Tuesday, but his campaign released two new television advertisements in North Carolina during the day.
One of the commercials, a narrator implored: “We need to get control over the virus. Donald Trump failed. Joe Biden will get it done.”
Trump, in his Tuesday evening rally, accused Biden and running mate U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of trying to spread “anti-vaccine conspiracy theories” because they have questioned his claims that a COVID-19 vaccine is near.
Biden and Harris released a joint statement on Tuesday “laying out three questions this Administration must answer to assure the American people that politics will play no role in the approval and distribution of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.”
The Democrats are asking the Trump administration to state what scientific criteria will be used to ensure safety and efficacy of the vaccine; who will validate an official decision greenlighting the vaccine; and what is the plan to allocate and distribute the vaccine to Americans “cost-free, safely, equitably and without politics.”
Trump has been hinting that a vaccine for the coronavirus could be ready by Election Day on November 3.
Nine drugmakers issued an unusual pledge on Tuesday, vowing to uphold the highest ethical and scientific standards in developing their vaccines.
The announcement follows concern that Trump will pressure the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve a vaccine before it is proven to be safe and effective.
As Trump began his evening rally, confirmation came from the developer of one of the vaccines, AstraZeneca, that it was halting late-stage studies of its vaccine candidate developed at Oxford University due to “a potentially unexplained illness” suffered by one patient in Britain.
The “standard review process triggered a pause to vaccination to allow review of safety data,” the British-Swedish drugmaker said in a statement. “We are working to expedite the review of the single event to minimize any potential impact on the trial timeline.”
The United States has reported the most infections and deaths from the coronavirus.
More than 6.3 million cases have been reported in the country, with deaths totaling slightly more than 189,500 according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.