WASHINGTON — In a White House Rose Garden press conference meant to highlight the gain of 2.5 million jobs in May after two months of devastating job losses, President Trump lamented that “many of our states are closed or almost closed” because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 110,000 Americans. He urged those states to hasten their reopening plans, even though states that have already done so are seeing the very kinds of infection spikes that public health officials warned about.
“I hope that the lockdown governors — I don’t know why they continue to lock down,” Trump said, presumably referring to states like New York and New Jersey that have taken a more cautious approach to lifting restrictions on large social gatherings and some forms of commercial activity.
“If you look at Georgia, if you look at Florida, if you look at South Carolina, if you look at so many different places that have opened up ... I don’t want to name all of them, but the ones that are most energetic about opening, they’re doing tremendous business. And that is what these numbers are all about,” Trump said in his largely upbeat remarks.
In fact, all of those states are seeing a resurgence of the coronavirus, with Florida recording 1,419 new cases on Thursday, the highest number since the state began keeping track in March. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a strong backer of Trump who has been eager to celebrate his success over the coronavirus, even as evidence grows that his administration has intentionally suppressed the extent of the coronavirus in the state.
“Look at what’s going on in Florida, it’s incredible,” Trump said at one point. “The job the governor of Florida’s done, it’s incredible. The numbers they’re doing ... you gotta open it up.” (Trump also misrepresented the number of American lives the coronavirus has claimed, putting the figure at 105,000.)
Earlier this week, DeSantis made a bid for Florida to host the Republican National Convention, after plans to hold it in North Carolina were scrapped following a dispute over social distancing measures between the party and the state’s Democratic governor.
Georgia reported 953 new cases on Thursday, the highest number of new infections in about four weeks. Earlier this week, Atlanta was the site of widespread protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Public health officials fear such demonstrations by thousands of marching, chanting protesters could lead to new coronavirus outbreaks.
Much like Florida, Georgia has had the integrity of its coronavirus numbers questioned. Gov. Brian Kemp, along with DeSantis, was among the very first governors to embrace the president’s call to reopen. Trump helped both men win their elections, and they have repaid him by rarely straying from his message or agenda.
The situation is similar in South Carolina, which like Georgia and Florida began to lift restrictions in late April and early May. Last week it saw what the State, a local outlet, called “irregularly high coronavirus case increases.” Those increases angered Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican also aligned with Trump. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, McMaster complained that some citizens had stopped taking the pandemic seriously.
“I’m not sure how to get through to some people other than to point out it’s still here. It’s all over the country. It’s not going to evaporate one day. It’s still highly dangerous, and it’s deadly,” the evidently frustrated governor told members of the news media.
Trump and his advisers believe that a strong economy remains his best argument for reelection in November. He routinely takes credit, as he did on Friday morning, for fostering what he calls “the greatest economy in the history of the world,” although the recovery from the financial and housing crisis of 2008 was well underway by the time he took office in 2017. Democrats say former President Barack Obama deserves most of the credit for the economic recovery, while Republicans claim Trump’s tax cuts and anti-regulatory policies galvanized a steady but sluggish economy.
“We were doing so well,” Trump complained during Friday’s press conference. “And then it came in.” He referred to the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, as the “China plague.” With bitterness in his voice, Trump called the pandemic “a gift from China, and a very bad gift.”
Along with China, states like California and New York came in for blame during the president’s rambling, blustering and celebratory speech. Trump suggested the nation’s economic outlook — which he said is “spectacular” for the fourth quarter and “better than anyone has ever seen before” for next year — would be even better if the giant economies of those states were to return to normal. “Don’t forget, New York is barely included, and that’s one of our big ones,” he said, apparently speaking of the jobs numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday. “California is barely included, because they’re not open. And they should open, by the way. The mayor of Los Angeles wants to keep this closed for a long time.”
Americans have been disapproving of the president’s handling of the virus, which gave him a strong incentive to trumpet the good economic news. The coronavirus led to the loss of as many as 40 million jobs, as entire sectors of the economy effectively closed. And as many states were returning to normal, the country was roiled by protests over the death of Floyd, leading to curfews in many cities and the shuttering of retail stores as a precaution against looting.
Trump awkwardly tried to tether Friday’s encouraging jobs numbers to Floyd’s legacy. “Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying, ‘This is a great thing that’s happening for our country.’ This is a great day for him, it’s a great day for everybody,” said the president, whose response to police killings has been criticized as lackadaisical.
Trump spoke with Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, economic adviser Larry Kudlow and other senior administration officials standing behind him. None of the officials appeared to be wearing face masks of the kind recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the president’s own task force.
At one point, Trump seemed to malign the kind of social distancing that public health officials say is critical to preventing the virus from spreading. “I notice you’re starting to get much closer together,” he told the reporters gathered on the lawn, who since the pandemic took root have had to sit spaced far apart during White House briefings. “It looks much better, I must say. You’re not all the way there yet,” Trump added, “but you’ll be there soon.”
Chairs for the press corps were generously spaced ahead of the press conference, but a photograph shared on social media by CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta showed that those chairs were pushed closer together. After the press conference, the White House Correspondents' Association released a statement that said the chairs had been moved closer together by White House staff because, in an echo of Trump’s own words, “it looks better.”