WASHINGTON (AP) — Amid a political crisis of his own making, President Donald Trump headed for the comfort of a rally in battleground Michigan on Thursday, trying to move past revelations that he had been determined to play down the threat of the coronavirus last winter despite describing it in private as “deadly stuff.”
But the president was facing renewed pushback from officials worried that his rallies are growing in size and flouting public health guidelines intended to halt the spread of the virus. This week, the state of Nevada became the first to scuttle Trump’s plans for rallies initially set for Las Vegas and Reno. Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also raised alarms about Thursday's event.
The back-and-forth comes as the White House is grappling with fallout from a new book by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward. In a series of interviews with Woodward, Trump spoke frankly about the dangers posed by the virus — even as he downplayed them publicly — and admitted he had tried to mislead the public. The book has refocused attention on Trump's handling of the virus, a subject he has tried to shift away from less than two months before Election Day.
In a burst of tweets Thursday morning, Trump defended his comments admitting that he had been warned about the danger of the virus.
“Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months,” Trump wrote. “If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!”
Woodward has defended his decision to hold off by saying he needed time to make sure Trump’s private comments were true.
At the same time, Trump's campaign has resumed an aggressive campaign schedule, despite growing resistance from local leaders who have expressed alarm at his insistence on holding large-scale rallies during a pandemic.
While the rallies so far have been held in airport hangars open to the air, they have been drawing thousands of supporters despite local restrictions. And the majority of attendees have refused to wear masks, even when mandates are in place.
Trump has characterized the rallies as “peaceful protests” and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said attendees were exercising their First Amendment rights.
This week, Nevada pulled the plug on rallies set for this weekend, citing the state's ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, drawing fury from Trump's campaign.
“Outrageous!” tweeted Adam Laxalt, Trump's Nevada campaign co-chair. “This is unprecedented – to cancel an incumbent president’s campaign stop inside 60 days of a major contested election in a swing state. This isn’t over!”
In Michigan, Gov. Whitmer did not try to scuttle the rally, but warned that such events “threaten all that sacrifice that we’ve made.”
“If the rallies are like those he’s held in recent days in other states, with lots of people close together without masks on projecting their voices, I’m concerned about it,” she said at a news conference Thursday morning. "This is not a partisan observation. We are in a public health crisis. We all want to get out of this public health crisis. It’s going to take every one of us doing the right things to get out of it together, to make this as short as possible.” Michigan currently caps outdoor events at 100 people and mandates that attendees wear masks if they cannot consistently stay 6 feet away from people who are not part of their households. There is an exception, though, which states that nothing in the order can “abridge protections guaranteed by the state or federal constitution under these emergency circumstances.”
It was a similar situation in North Carolina, where Trump held a rally this week that drew a mostly mask-less crowd of thousands. While an executive order currently limits outdoor gatherings to 50 people and mandates masks in public, the rally was technically legal under state pandemic rules that exempt certain gatherings where people exercise free speech, a spokeswoman for North Carolina’s governor said Wednesday.
Still, the spokeswoman, Dory MacMillan, said that, “When elected leaders violate the White House coronavirus guidelines surrounding masks and social distancing, especially with large mask-less crowds that sit and stand closely together for hours, they put people’s health at risk."
Michigan is a vital Electoral College battleground, which Trump won by only 10,704 votes in 2016, helping him breach the Democrats' “blue wall" and putting him in office. While Trump aides had all but written off the state earlier this summer, they now say they have seen a tightening in recent weeks and believe they are in a better position than they were in 2016. But Democrats see optimism, too, having made major gains there in the 2018 midterms, winning every major statewide office and a handful of congressional seats as well.
Both candidates have been paying frequent visits, with Biden traveling to suburban Detroit on Wednesday to make a direct appeal to blue-collar workers who might have voted Republican four years ago but now regret it.
Associated Press writers David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, Brian Slodysko in Washington and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.