Governors decry Trump support of coronavirus protesters: 'Dangerous'

"I don't think it's helpful to encourage demonstrations and encourage people to go against the president's own policy," said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
Image: A man waves an American flag during a rally against California's stay at home orders in San Diego on April 18, 2020.
A man waves a U.S. flag during a rally against California's stay-at-home orders in San Diego on Saturday, April 18, 2020.Ariana Drehsler / AFP - Getty Images

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By Allan Smith

Governors across the country Sunday criticized President Donald Trump's expression of solidarity with people protesting various state-issued stay-at-home orders, saying his comments are "dangerous" and "don't make any sense."

"I don't know any other way to characterize it, when we have an order from governors, both Republicans and Democrats, that basically are designed to protect people's health, literally their lives, to have a president of the United States basically encourage insubordination, to encourage illegal activity," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said on ABC's "This Week," adding, "To have an American president to encourage people to violate the law, I can't remember any time during my time in America where we have seen such a thing."

Inslee said Trump's comments were "dangerous" because they "can inspire people to ignore things that actually can save their lives." Trump's promotion of the protesters was "hobbling our national efforts to protect people from this terrible virus."

"And it is doubly frustrating to us governors because this is such a schizophrenia, because the president basically is asking people: Please ignore Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx. Please ignore my own guidelines that I set forth, because those guidelines made very clear, if you read them — and I don't know if the president did or not — but, if you read them, it made very clear that you cannot open up Michigan today or Virginia," Inslee said. "Under those guidelines, you need to see a decline in the infections and fatalities. And that simply has not happened yet."

The past week saw an increasing number of protests across the country at which demonstrators railed against coronavirus restrictions that health experts say are necessary to curtail the spread of the virus.

The protesters have said they believe the shutdowns, which have harmed business and stunted leisure activity, have gone too far, especially in areas that haven't seen major outbreaks like those in New York City and Detroit. But health experts have warned it won't take much for a relatively unaffected place to become a hot spot, as just one infected person is able to spread the virus to several other people.

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The demonstrations have been small for the most part. A Gallup poll conducted this month found that just 20 percent of Americans would like to see an immediate return to normal, while 71 percent prefer to wait and see how the outbreak develops. That includes just 31 percent of Republicans who want to see an immediate return, as well as 23 percent of small town and rural-dwelling respondents.

The protests, which have been promoted in large Facebook groups with names like "Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine" and "ReOpen NC," have attracted a large pro-Trump contingency, with demonstrators wearing and waving Make America Great Again gear, as well as "Don't Tread on Me" flags. Protests like "Operation Gridlock" in Michigan, the largest of the demonstrations so far, have been organized and promoted by leading conservatives. Some have even been seen waving Confederate flags at the rallies.

The rallies have led to crowds gathering' in close proximity, with many participants forgoing masks and violating social distancing guidelines.

Late last week, Trump cheered the effort to "LIBERATE" Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, three states with Democratic governors. He defended the tweets Friday, saying he thinks some states' stay-at-home orders "are too tough" and adding that he feels "very comfortable" with his tweets.

"These are people expressing their views," he said. "I see where they are, and I see the way they're working. They seem to be very responsible people to me, but it's — you know, they've been treated a little bit rough."

Speaking at a press conference later Sunday, Trump said the protesters were "great people" who were dealing with "cabin fever."

The administration last week released guidelines for how states can begin easing restrictions recommending a multi-stage process that includes robust testing. Governors said Sunday that Trump's encouragement of the protesters was confusing considering those guidelines.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said on CNN's "State of the Union" that Maryland is "doing everything we possibly can to reopen in a safe manner" but that "I don't think it's helpful to encourage demonstrations and encourage people to go against the president's own policy."

"The president's policy says you can't start to reopen under his plan until you have declining numbers for 14 days, which those states and my state do not have," he said. "So then to go encourage people to go protest the plan you just made recommendations on Thursday — it just doesn't make any sense. We're sending completely conflicting messages out to the governors and to the people as if we should ignore federal policy and federal recommendations."

Speaking on NBC News' "Meet the Press," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said that he's asked protesters to "observe social distancing" and that "we're all big believers in the First Amendment."

"They were protesting against me yesterday, and that's just fine," he said. "They have every right to do that. We're going to do what we think is right, what I think is right, which is try to open this economy but do it very, very carefully so we don't get a lot of people killed. But we have to come back, and we're aiming to do that May 1. It's very consistent ... with the very thoughtful plan the president laid out."

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said on CNN that Trump was focusing on protests after having been "unable to deliver on tests."

"And this is not the time for protest," Northam said after Trump encouraged gun rights activists in Virginia. "This is not the time for divisiveness. This is time for leadership that will stand up and provide empathy, that will understand what's going on in this country of ours with this pandemic. It's the time for truth. And it's the time to bring people together."

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A new NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll conducted just before the administration's reopening guidelines were announced showed that 58 percent of registered voters are more concerned that America will "move too quickly in loosening restrictions" and cost more lives than they are about the country's taking too long to loosen the orders. Meanwhile, earlier last week, Trump said he was "not going to put pressure on any governor to open."

Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Vice President Mike Pence addressed Trump's encouragement of the protests, saying that "no one in America wants to reopen this country more than" Trump and that "when the president speaks about reopening America it's all about encouraging governors, as soon as they determine as most proper and most appropriate, to be able to do that and do that quickly."

Pence said on "Meet the Press" that the U.S. has "to make sure the cure isn't worse than the disease" and that there are "real costs" to staying shut down, pointing to business closings and health risks tied to isolation.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has instituted one of the most restrictive stay-at-home orders as the state deals with one of the worst outbreaks in the U.S., said on "Meet the Press" that she stood by the measure.

"Michigan right now has the third-highest number of deaths from COVID-19, and yet we're the 10th-largest state," she said. "We have a disproportionate problem in the state of Michigan. And so we could take the same action that other states have, but it doesn't rise to the challenge we're confronting. And that's precisely why we have to take a more aggressive stand."

"Who among us wouldn't rather forgo jet skiing or boating right now if it's going to save your grandparent or your neighbor's life?" she later said on CNN. "And that's precisely what the tradeoff is at the moment."