President Donald Trump on Friday defended his support for civil unrest against states that are implementing the very social distancing practices that his administration has recommended—saying protesters who have gathered to demand an end to stay-at-home orders are “very responsible people.”
The comments came hours after a trio of tweets Friday morning, in which Trump called to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia. In his tweet targeting Virginia, Trump added, “And save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
Speaking from the White House just a day after he said he’d leave it to governors as to when they should reopen their economies, the president said he thought “elements of what they’ve done are too much.”
During Friday night’s briefing, Trump was asked if he was concerned that people protesting could spread the virus, he referred to them as “people expressing their views.”
“I see where they are and I see the way they’re working,” Trump said. “They seem to be very responsible people to me. But they’ve been treated a little bit rough.”
Protests decrying safety measures put in place during the coronavirus pandemic have targeted a number of states this week, threatening to cause political havoc and exacerbate the public health crisis. The demonstrations have been relatively small and unreflective of popular opinion, which has consistently shown support for social distancing and stay-at-home orders to combat the spread of COVID-19. But the president’s tweets, and conservative media attention, threatened to elevate them from mere nuisances into a more serious political force.
“It sounds patriotic, but to militia extremists it fans the flames of their fear and paranoia. Could push someone over the edge to plot or carry out an act of violence against Democrats, the police or someone else,” Daryl Johnson, a former analyst of right-wing extremism at the Department of Homeland Security, said in a text to The Daily Beast. “It also shows the anti-government and militia types that the president approves of their mindset and protest activities.”
Anti-social distancing activists across the country said they were encouraged by Trump’s tweets, viewing them as proof that the president is taking an interest in their rallies against Democratic governors.
“For him to say ‘liberate,’ I think what he’s really saying is ‘restore our freedom,’” said Matt Seely, a spokesman for the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which organized Wednesday’s rally in Lansing, Michigan.
Trump’s tweets were also met with excitement on “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine,” a Facebook group with more than 350,000 members that’s become a hotbed for that state’s anti-social distancing movement. Many groups members took Trump’s tweet as a sign that he backed their effort to oppose Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) stay-at-home order; others saw it a signal to rise up against Democrats.
“Civil War doesn't seem like such a far fetched idea anymore…” wrote one member.
“The civil war is starting now!!! Rise up!!” wrote another.
By Friday afternoon, Democrats were in an uproar.
“As the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia I, along with this staff, is fighting a biological war. I do not have time to involve myself in Twitter wars,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said about Trump’s tweet Friday. “I will continue to make sure that I do everything that I can to keep Virginians safe and to save lives.”
Asked about the tweet during a press briefing Friday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said he had tried calling the president and vice president and "got no return.” In Michigan, Whitmer said people in this moment of the pandemic “are feeling very anxious.”
“I think the most important thing that anyone with a platform can do is to try to use that platform to tell people, “We're going to get through this,’” she said.
And during a conference call between Senate Democrats and Vice President Mike Pence on Friday, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) demanded an explanation for Trump’s social media missives. “Why is the president inciting division like that in the middle of a pandemic?” Kaine asked Pence, according to two aides briefed on the call. Pence, those aides said, largely ducked the question—stressing, instead, that the White House and the president had been working respectfully with governors. At that point, Kaine jumped in again, once more pointing to the morning tweets. "That’s the opposite of being respectful to governors,” he replied.
Friday’s tweets are the latest entry in a week where Trump has lashed out at governors, falsely claimed authority over individual states to reopen their economies, and then backtracked on those claims. When he was asked about the protesters during Thursday’s coronavirus task force briefing, Trump declined to criticize them, claiming that people are “suffering.” And when asked if they listen to local authorities Trump said, “I think they’re listening, I think they listen to me.”
All of which made Friday’s encouragement of the civil unrest so jarring. In the halls of the White House, Trump’s outbursts were widely viewed as evidence that he was once again getting mad or amped up while watching his TV. But according to three Trump administration officials, it was also seen as an attempt for him to find leverage against certain governors, after conceding that he lacked the constitutional authority to force states to drop public safety measures in favor of economic revitalization efforts.
“This happens all the time,” said one senior official. “He wants to do something big, runs up against limitations or internal resistance, backs down, and then usually finds another way to try to achieve his goals.”
Not long before Friday’s White House press briefing began, Trump held a conference call with religious leaders and envoys to address questions about his administration’s push to “re-open” the U.S. economy, and also to get Americans back into houses of worship. “[Live-streaming a service on] a laptop is fine but it’s not the same as being in… church,” the president told participants, according to a source familiar with the call.
Trump also told listeners that his administration will soon be recommending guidelines for how to begin opening churches and other houses of worship in phases. The president said that these federal recommendations could include suggestions about meeting in smaller groups and having seniors and other at-risk individuals coming to church at different times or days, or meeting in different areas of the place of worship.
On the call, the source added, Trump was also asked if the Justice Department would continue to pursue religious liberty cases during the coronavirus crisis—a reference to those ticketed by police while worshiping at a drive-in service during the pandemic.
Trump replied that he was confident that the Justice Department will continue to pursue such cases, as they come, and that the department and Attorney General William Barr would be vigilant in protecting the religious liberty of American churches. The president also stressed that he was sympathetic to what DOJ was doing and that he wanted to be sure that places of worship were being treated fairly during this pandemic, this source recounted.
The person familiar with Friday’s conference call did not recall Trump bringing up his desire to “LIBERATE” states or churches, and characterized the call as more sedate than some of the president’s more controversial recent outbursts and calls to action.
But Trump’s liberation-focused tweets Friday certainly echo his earlier stance that shutting down the country could be harmful because of the emotional and economic impact of stay-at-home orders and restrictive measures put in place to help keep people safe from the coronavirus pandemic. One of the president’s ardent followers, Minnesota U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis, quickly responded to Trump’s tweet saying, “Minnesota is being held hostage. We must #ReopenMN and we need to do it now!”
When a reporter at Friday’s briefing pressed Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, over whether the protests concerned him, he didn’t appear to share the president’s enthusiasm.
“I’m looking at it from a public health standpoint,” Fauci said. “I certainly could understand the frustration of people, but my main role in the task force is to make recommendations to protect the health and the safety of the American people, and I would hope that people understand that that's the reason why we’re doing what we're doing and hopefully we’ll put an end to this.”