FREELAND, Mich. (AP) — Amid a political crisis of his own making, President Donald Trump tried to refocus attention on the economy at a rally in battleground Michigan Thursday as he pushed to move past revelations that he had been determined to play down the danger of the coronavirus last winter despite describing it in private as “deadly stuff.”
But the virus controversy followed him. Trump faced renewed pushback from officials worried that his rallies are growing in size and flouting public health guidelines intended to halt the COVID-19 spread. This week, the state of Nevada became the first to scuttle his plans for rallies initially set for Las Vegas and Reno. Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also raised alarms about Thursday’s event.
Trump reveled in the crowd of several thousand, packed shoulder-to-shoulder in an airport hangar, mostly without masks.
“This is not the crowd of a person who comes in second place," Trump declared to cheers.
Before departing the White House Trump denied he had lied to the nation and highlighted a surge in virus cases in Europe to contend that the United States is faring well. “I really do believe we’re rounding the corner,” he asserted.
Trump is grappling with fallout from a new book by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward. In a series of interviews with Woodward, the president 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, based on recorded phone interviews, 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.
“Donald Trump knew all along just how deadly this virus is," Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said in a virtual fundraiser. “He knew and purposefully played it down because all he was concerned about was his reelection, didn’t want to affect economic growth.”
Congress' top Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, set the party's theme on the subject: “Trump lied and people died.”
But Trump, answering questions at the White House, insisted “there was no lie” in his often-dismissive public comments about the virus last February and March.
He noted that he had limited travel from China, where the virus apparently originated, “so, obviously, outwardly I said it’s a very serious problem. ... That doesn’t mean I’m going to jump up and down in the air and start saying ‘people are going to die, people are going to die.’”
Meanwhile, Trump 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, the campaign pulled the plug on a pair of upcoming rallies in Nevada after the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority warned a company that planned to host the rally for 5,000 people at a private hangar that it would be in violation of the governor’s restrictions banning gatherings of more than 50 people and the terms of the company’s lease for the hangar.
“You are hereby advised that you may not proceed with the proposed gathering,” the letter states.
“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. 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 such events "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.
Trump has also tried to keep those voters' support, and at his rally Thursday he pushed back, accusing Biden of supporting trade deals and policies that moved jobs to other countries, including China.
“Joe Biden devoted his career to offshoring Michigan’s jobs,” Trump said, drawing boos from the crowd. “Biden supported every disastrous globalist sellout for over a half a century.”
Michigan's unemployment rate spiked at 24% in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It has since recovered to 8.7%, but Michigan has nearly 414,500 fewer jobs than it did when Trump was inaugurated.
Associated Press writers David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, Brian Slodysko in Washington, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.