Trump foments anti-restriction protests, alarming governors

Demonstrators stand outside of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, on April 16, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump on Friday (April 17) openly encouraged right-wing protests of social distancing restrictions in states with stay-at-home orders, a day after announcing guidelines for how the nation's governors should carry out an orderly reopening of their communities on their own timetables.

In a series of all-caps tweets that started two minutes after a Fox News report on the protesters, the president declared, "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" and "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" - two states whose Democratic governors have imposed strict social distancing restrictions. He also lashed out at Virginia, where the state's Democratic governor and Legislature have pushed for strict gun control measures, saying: "LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!"

His stark departure from the more bipartisan tone of his announcement Thursday night suggested Trump was ceding any semblance of national leadership on the pandemic, and choosing instead to divide the country by playing to his political base.

Echoed across the internet and on cable television by conservative pundits and ultraright conspiracy theorists, his tweets were a remarkable example of a president egging on demonstrators and helping to stoke an angry fervor that in its anti-government rhetoric was eerily reminiscent of the birth of the Tea Party movement a decade ago.

In another series of tweets on Friday, the president returned again to the kind of rank partisanship that has characterised much of his time in office, rekindling a fight with Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, only days after heaping praise on him, by saying that the state's chief executive should "spend more time 'doing' and less time 'complaining.'"

The retort came after Cuomo said that New York could not fully reopen its economy without more widespread testing and help from the federal government.

Even before Cuomo had finished speaking during his televised daily briefing, Trump lashed out, tweeting, "We built you thousands of hospital beds that you didn't need or use, gave large numbers of Ventilators that you should have had, and helped you with testing that you should be doing."

He said Cuomo owed the federal government a thank-you.

"First of all, if he's sitting home watching TV, maybe he should get up and go to work, right?" Cuomo responded in real time. "Second, let's keep emotion and politics out of this, and personal ego if we can. Because this is about the people."

The governor added that he had already repeatedly thanked the federal government for its aid. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do - send a bouquet of flowers?" Cuomo asked.

In unveiling guidelines on Thursday evening at the White House that governors could use to decide when it was safe to phase out restrictions, Trump had taken a more measured tone, emphasizing that "we are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time."

The guidelines recommended lifting the restrictions in three phases once states experience 14 days in which testing is available, the number of cases decline and hospitals are not overwhelmed.

In Phase 1, some businesses could open but schools would remain closed.

In Phase 2, more people could return to work while continuing social distancing.

And by Phase 3, most of American life could return to something close to normal.

But the president's message to governors that "you're going to call your own shots" quickly gave way to a more strident one by Friday.

Trump's call for liberation from social distancing rules followed protests around the country as protesters - many wearing red "Make America Great Again" hats - congregated in packed groups around state capitols to demand that restrictions be immediately lifted and to demonise their Democratic governors.

In Michigan, protesters waved banners in support of Trump and protested Governor Gretchen Whitmer by chanting, "Lock her up."

In St. Paul, Minnesota, a group calling itself "Liberate Minnesota" rallied against stay-at-home orders in front of the home of Governor Tim Walz, demanding he "end this lockdown!"

In Columbus, Ohio, protesters crowded closely together as they pressed up against the doors of the state's Capitol.

Speaking on Friday evening at the White House, the president expressed sympathy for the protesters for having to endure what he called "too tough" social distancing orders in their states, and he dismissed concerns that they could spread the virus by holding demonstrations. "They seem to be very responsible people to me," he said.

By embracing the backlash to the coronavirus restrictions, Trump is tapping into a powerful well of political energy as he seeks reelection this year. The president is also trying to deflect anger about his response to the virus away from him and toward Democratic governors, who he hopes will shoulder the blame for keeping the restrictions in place and for any deaths that occur after states reopen.

The pressure to reopen the economy comes amid skyrocketing jobless claims and an unemployment rate that is approaching 17 per cent, higher than any mark since the Great Depression.

In the hours after the president's tweets, several Democratic governors joined Cuomo in expressing their exasperation with Trump.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, who ran an unsuccessful bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said Trump's tweets "encourage illegal and dangerous acts" and said the president was "putting millions of people in danger of contracting Covid-19."

Inslee added: "His unhinged rantings and calls for people to 'liberate' states could also lead to violence. We've seen it before."

And in Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer said she hoped the president's comments would not incite more protests. "There is a lot of anxiety," she said. "The most important thing that anyone with a platform can do is try to use that platform to tell people, 'We are going to get through this.'"

The latest escalation in the back-and-forth between Trump and the nation's governors underscored the high stakes as they grapple with how to respond to the pandemic.

Governors of both parties have drawn praise for their decisive actions and calm leadership in shutting down businesses and schools to protect public health, but the decision about when and how to reopen could prove far more politically perilous. Moving too soon comes with the risk of more cases and deaths, but moving too late means people's livelihoods could be destroyed for good.

For Trump, the calculation is also perilous as he tries to mobilise his core supporters while abandoning once again his sporadic attempts at bipartisanship.

Openly supporting those who challenge the stay-at-home orders could help the president reenergise the coalition of conservative Republicans and working-class populists who agree with the anti-government sentiment that helped power Trump's election victory in 2016.

Large majorities of the country - including Republicans - are concerned about the dangers of reopening the country too quickly. But among very conservative voters, 65 per cent said they were more worried about reopening too slowly, according to a Pew Research Centre poll released on Thursday.

Shaping their views has been Fox News, which has devoted extensive coverage to the protests that took place this week, reminiscent of the way it provided a platform for Tea Party activists early in the Obama administration.

For the past several days, the network has shown videos of the crowds gathered outside state capitols and aired interviews with organisers who fumed at their governors.

Whitmer, in particular, has become a target of Fox hosts like Tucker Carlson, who has described her quarantine orders, which are among the most restrictive in the country, as "authoritarian."

"I hope she loses her job because she certainly deserves it," Carlson said.

Others, like Fox's Laura Ingraham, have encouraged more demonstrations.

Before Trump put out his "LIBERATE" message Friday morning, Ingraham addressed a tweet to Virginians. "When will residents protest and reclaim their freedom?" she wrote.

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