President Trump encouraged protesters in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia who are defying social distancing orders to rally against the states’ safety measures intended to stop the coronavirus spread.
In back-to-back tweets Friday morning, Trump wrote: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” and then, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and then, “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
It’s unclear why Trump seems to be siding with the protesters given that the states in question have imposed restrictions that follow the recommendations laid out by Trump’s White House coronavirus task force last month that go by the name “The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines For America.”
When the guidelines were released, Trump urged all Americans to follow them for the sake of the country.
“Our future is in our own hands, and the choices and sacrifices we make will determine the fate of this virus and, really, the fate of our victory. We will have a great victory. We have no other choice,” he said on March 30. “Every one of us has a role to play in winning this war. Every citizen, family, and business can make the difference in stopping the virus. This is our shared patriotic duty.”
Minutes before Trump’s tweets, Fox News had shown a segment about a group calling itself “Liberate Minnesota,” which had planned a protest that day outside the residence of Gov. Tim Walz (D) in opposition to his stay-at-home order. Fox also had on a Michigan sheriff to discuss people challenging the orders of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who has also publicly clashed with Trump over his handling of the public health crisis, skewered the president over the tweets.
“The president’s statements this morning encourage illegal and dangerous acts. He is putting millions of people in danger of contracting COVID-19,” Inslee said. “His unhinged rantings and calls for people to “liberate” states could also lead to violence.”
Vice President Mike Pence also got an earful from Democratic senators angry about Trump’s tweets during a conference call Friday. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) raised the issue, telling the vice president that Trump was trying to drive a wedge between governors and the federal government and asked why Trump was tweeting such sentiments.
Pence had no response, an official on the call said. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) then asked Pence to answer Kaine’s question, but the vice president still didn’t offer a direct response.
Asked specifically during the evening White House briefing about Inslee’s criticism, Trump said some states are “too tough.”
“I think elements of what they’ve done is too much and it’s just too much,” Trump said without expanding on what orders he thinks has gone too far.
All but seven states have ordered their citizens to stay home to beat the virus, but Trump was only antagonistic with a handful of Democratic governors.
The three states where Trump seemed to endorse civil unrest are considered battlegrounds in the presidential campaign. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Minnesota while Trump took Michigan, each by narrow margins. Clinton more easily won Virginia.
Trump has been known to incite his supporters with his rhetoric. During his rallies in 2016, he offered to pay the legal bills of supporters who roughed up a protester and also made an oblique reference to using the Second Amendment against Clinton if she won.
The president’s far-right supporters seemed to interpret his tweets as a call to arms against the government, according to a report by NBC News on the uptick of discussion about civil war on social media.
A rowdy protest Thursday outside the Michigan capitol clogged roads and crowded the downtown streets, resembling a Trump rally, with maskless people wearing MAGA hats and chanting “Lock her up,” referring to Whitmer.
Protesters clog Michigan Capitol to protest lockdownProtesters in Lansing, Mich., on April 15 caused a traffic jam near the capitol building to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order. (Video: John Farrell/Photo: Matthew Dae Smith/ Lansing State Journal/AP/The Washington Post)
Trump has publicly sparred with Whitmer, widely considered a possible Democratic vice president candidate, who has been critical of the White House’s response to the public health crisis.
Whitmer warned Thursday night that these public displays of disobedience threaten to extend the stay-at-home guidance by spreading the infection among those gathering. On Friday morning, during an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Whitmer said she could handle people lashing out at her, but urged them not to make this pandemic “overly political.”
“Let’s focus on the public health. … I know that there are a lot of businesses and people that are hurting right now. But the fact of the matter is it’s better to be six feet apart right now than six feet under,” she said.
Also Thursday, a smaller group protested in Virginia by holding a picnic on the capitol grounds without social distancing or wearing masks. Trump’s reference in his tweet to the Second Amendment is most likely a reference to a slate of gun safety bills Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed into law last week, which included expanding background checks to all firearm sales.
“As the governor of the commonwealth of Virginia I, along with my staff, are fighting a biological war,” Northam said when asked about Trump’s tweet. “I do not have time to involve myself in Twitter wars. I will continue to do everything that I can to keep Virginia safe and to save lives.”
Trump also directed his ire at New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, tweeting that the Democrat should “spend more time ‘doing’ and less time ‘complaining.’ Get out there and get the job done. Stop talking!”
Cuomo was in the middle of his daily news briefing and responded in real time to the president: “If he’s sitting home watching TV, maybe he should get up and go to work.”
Seung Min Kim, Gregory Schneider and John Wagner contributed to this report.