WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said members of his Bedminster country club who were present at an official White House press conference were attending a "peaceful protest" Friday night when asked why they weren't adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Before Trump took the podium, members of the White House pool press had reported that dozens of club members were standing close together in the room, and only a few were wearing masks.
After pool reporters tweeted that guests were not adhering to New Jersey COVID-19 regulations, members were given masks to wear by staffers. They had already been standing shoulder-to-shoulder for about half an hour.
Country club members awaiting the president pic.twitter.com/cm9FOvtoC9
— Jonathan Lemire (@JonLemire) August 7, 2020
A reporter said to Trump: "You said that the pandemic is disappearing, but we lost 6,000 Americans this week and just in this room you have dozens of people who are not following the guidelines in New Jersey." The question prompted boos from the crowd.
Trump argued: “You're wrong about that because it's a political activity. They have exceptions for political activities. And it's also a peaceful protest... To me they all look like they pretty much all have masks on."
The president's comment drew cheers from the supporters. He continued to argue that the members were protesting the journalists in the room.
"You have an exclusion in the law it says peaceful protest or political activity, right? You could call it political activity, but I'd call it peaceful protest because they heard you were coming up and they know the news is fake," he said to applause.
Trump's paying Bedminster customers boo when a reporter points out that many of them aren't wearing masks, violating New Jersey law. Trump defends them by describing them as "peaceful protesters" of the media, then ends the news conference to a round of applause. pic.twitter.com/5DVow55B1G
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 8, 2020
The president's official news conferences, like the one held Friday night, are official White House events, paid for by taxpayers. They are not the same thing as his political rallies – which are actual political events.
This week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tightened restrictions following a recent surge of new COVID-19 cases in the state. New Jersey's new coronavirus guidelines require that any indoor event "regardless of the room’s capacity, the maximum limit shall be 25 persons" while also requiring that workers and customers wear face coverings.
Trump held the last-minute press conference to discuss proposed executive orders for COVID-19 economic relief after White House negotiators say talks with congressional Democrats have fallen apart over a coronavirus stimulus package.
The U.S. has recorded more than 160,000 deaths and 4.8 million cases of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, there have been more than 715,000 deaths and 19.1 million cases.
Trump, in recent days, had declared that wearing a mask is patriotic.
Following the event, Twitter users had mixed reactions:
Benny Johnson, chief creative officer at conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA, called it a "MASTER TROLL."
Elizabeth Harrington, the GOP's national spokeswoman, applauded Trump's line:
"And it's also a peaceful protest."
— Elizabeth Harrington (@LizRNC) August 8, 2020
Leave aside optics of president holding news conf at his private golf and country club during pandemic, but defending the members in room not wearing masks by saying this is a peaceful protest? In a country club? Is this first peaceful protest in a country club in history? https://t.co/nzyzz3f5bR
— Jon Sopel (@BBCJonSopel) August 8, 2020
Contributing: Michael Collins
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Peaceful protest': Trump defends audience at Bedminster golf club