ANALYSIS: Trump's campaigning stoops to new lows as COVID cases spike

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(CNN) — President Donald Trump and the pandemic he is supposed to be fighting are running out of control with the two weeks until Election Day shaping up as among the most ugly and divisive periods ever ahead of a presidential vote.

He's on a fresh collision course with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's publicly questioning why Trump thinks mask wearing is weak after a wild weekend that saw the President, who's trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls and still playing to his base, pack swing state rallies that flouted his government's Covid-19 protocols.

The latest clash between the top infectious disease specialist and the President came as the pandemic that has already killed more than 219,000 Americans worsened at the start of a feared fall and winter spike that threatens to further damage Trump's reelection.

Trump is fighting for his political life, campaigning at rallies that are almost the only mass participation events with no social distancing taking place in the US. His attacks are getting more extreme as the election gets closer, as he demands the locking up of his political rivals. He's claiming the election, and Thursday's presidential debate, are rigged against him.

He's demonizing Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was the target of a recently thwarted kidnapping plot. Trying to regain ground in the suburbs, he's using blatantly racist rhetoric to falsely warn White mothers that Democrats want to transform their residential districts with African refugees. This follows Trump's refusal last week to repudiate the QAnon group and his slanderous retweet of an outrageous conspiracy theory that claims Osama bin Laden is alive and Biden and former President Barack Obama might have had SEAL Team Six murdered.

The turbulent atmosphere that is dominating the end game in the presidential duel between Trump and Biden is coming as staggering lines form across the country as voters cast early ballots. As of Sunday evening, more than 27 million ballots had been cast in 45 states and Washington, DC, according to a survey of ballot data by CNN, Edison Research and Catalist. Ballots cast so far represent almost 20% of the more than 136 million total ballots cast in 2016.

'Cloth coverings work'

That there is still a public debate about mask wearing -- a practice that has become routine for millions seven months into the crisis -- reflects the politicized nature of the US response, which is one of the worst in the world. It also underscores how the President, who is duty bound to keep Americans safe, has been keen to leverage the situation to stoke his political base, with some conservatives viewing any instructions to wear masks as an infringement on their rights. At an NBC town hall last week, for instance, Trump falsely claimed that 85% of people who wear masks catch Covid-19, and he has rarely used the power of his office to recommend a simple step that scientists say could save tens of thousands of lives.

In an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes" that aired Sunday, Fauci -- a key member of the administration's coronavirus task force who has been marginalized -- said he wasn't surprised that the President caught Covid-19 given his disdain for social distancing and complained about his image being used in Trump campaign advertising. He also said it didn't make sense to him why Trump "equates wearing a mask with weakness."

"Let's see if we could put this to rest once and for all," Fauci said. "Cloth coverings work," he said, explaining how his view had changed after his initial statements in the early days of the emergency that mask wearing was not necessary.

"Meta analysis studies show that, contrary to what we thought, masks really do work in preventing infection," Fauci said. "When you find out you're wrong, it's a manifestation of your honesty to say, 'Hey, I was wrong. I did subsequent experiments and now it's this way.'"

Campaigning in Nevada on Sunday night, the President complained that he is always criticized for packed rallies with little social distancing in Covid-19 hot zones where few people wear masks. He pointed to the crowd behind his camera shot, which did include people with "Make America Great Again" face coverings. But the majority of people in his big crowds out of camera shot rarely take such precautions.

"They're always complaining, 'I don't see masks.' I mean there are a lot of masks on," Trump said.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in April that masks were useful in limiting the extent to which people who already carry the novel coronavirus can spread it. But Trump has rarely stressed the altruistic nature of mask wearing and his White House -- which turned into a super spreader locus of infection -- became a largely mask-free zone. Dr. Scott Atlas, the official who has Trump's ear on the pandemic, this weekend told Americans that masks don't work, prompting Twitter to take down his misinformation. Last week, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who caught the virus after helping the President's debate prep and attending the Supreme Court nomination ceremony at the White House, said he had been wrong not to wear a mask and implored Americans to do so.

In the world outside Trump's campaign bubble, and in defiance of his lies that the US is "rounding the corner," the Covid-19 emergency is getting worse. On Friday, for instance, the US recorded more than 69,000 new cases of the disease, the highest single-day total since late July, and test positivity is rising alarmingly in many areas. A dark winter is looming, and Trump's Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was on television on Sunday pleading with Americans to take exactly the health precautions that the President himself refuses to model.

"Please just give us a bit more time of your individual, responsible behavior of washing your hands, watch your distance, wear your face coverings when you can't watch your distance," Azar said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Biden on Sunday seized on the gathering pace of what now looks like an accelerating wave of Covid-19 to blast Trump's crisis leadership.

"The other night, Trump said at one of his rallies 'we have turned the corner.' My grandfather would say this guy has gone around the bend if he thinks we have turned the corner," Biden told supporters in the battleground state of North Carolina.

"Turned the corner? It's getting worse, he continues to lie to us about the circumstances."

Michigan governor condemns Trump's 'disturbing' rhetoric

The President was at his most inflammatory this weekend during a rally Saturday night in Muskegon, Michigan, a state where he pulled off a shock victory in 2016 but where he appears to be trailing Biden four years later.

He slammed Whitmer, whom he previously accused of being a "dictator" for her efforts to quell the coronavirus, insisting she had kept her state locked down even though the state's stay-at-home order has been lifted and many businesses are open with social distancing regulations in place. Trump did nothing as his crowd chanted "Lock her up" barely a week after federal authorities revealed a plot by extremists to kidnap the Democratic governor.

Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," Lara Trump, the President's daughter-in-law, who serves as a senior campaign official, dismissed the idea that Trump was inciting more extremist behavior toward Whitmer.

"Well, look, he wasn't doing anything, I don't think, to provoke people to threaten this woman at all," she said, referring to Whitmer. "He was having fun at a Trump rally."

The Michigan governor forcibly condemned the President's latest rhetoric.

"You know, it's incredibly disturbing that the President of the United States, 10 days after a plot to kidnap, put me on trial and execute me, 10 days after that was uncovered, the President is at it again and inspiring and incentivizing and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism," Whitmer said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"It is wrong. It's got to end. It is dangerous, not just for me and my family, but for public servants everywhere who are doing their jobs and trying to protect their fellow Americans."

The President also used his weekend to raise new questions about the fairness of the election as national polls and swing state surveys show him well behind the former Democratic vice president.

Trump, without credible evidence, warned his voters in Michigan that the election may not be fair and took a shot at NBC's Kristen Welker, the moderator of Thursday night's debate in Nashville, Tennessee, for what will be his second and final clash with Biden, following the cancellation of a previously scheduled debate after a chain of events set off by the President's diagnosis with Covid-19.

This story was first published on CNN.com, "Trump's campaigning stoops to new lows as Covid cases spike."