Trump appears to back those protesting social distancing measures

President Trump on Friday appeared to back protesters in three states with Democratic governors who are gathering in opposition to extended stay-at-home orders and other restrictions meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

One day after Trump reportedly told governors they would "call the shots" in determining when to lift social distancing guidelines in their states, Trump heightened tensions between demonstrators and the Democratic governors in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia.

"LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" Trump tweeted, followed quickly by a call to "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!"

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"LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!" Trump tweeted, a reference to the state's expanded background checks and limits on gun purchases signed into law last week.

All three states are broadly seen as swing contests in the 2020 presidential election. Trump won Michigan in 2016 in an upset and has hopes of taking Minnesota, though it has been decades since that state voted for a Republican as president. Trump will also be an underdog in the presidential race in Virginia.

The tweets come amid a growing trend of protesters gathering at state capitols to express displeasure with governors who have imposed stringent measures to close nonessential businesses and urge residents to remain in their homes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Thousands of people gathered in Michigan on Thursday to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's (D) extension of a stay-at-home order, with many donning Trump apparel or waving flags with the president's name. Whitmer has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate for Democrats.

A smaller protest took place in Richmond to oppose Gov. Ralph Northam's (D) order, which is in place until early June.

Northam, a former Army doctor, was asked about the tweet on Friday afternoon and told reporters that he is "fighting a biological war" and did not have time for "Twitter wars."

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A group calling itself "Liberate Minnesota" was set to protest outside Gov. Tim WalzTimothy (Tim) James WalzViolent protests, fires erupt in Minneapolis over George Floyd death Omar condemns use of rubber bullets, tear gas on crowds at George Floyd protest Four Minneapolis officers involved in death of unarmed black man fired MORE's residence on Friday, according to local reports. Hundreds of people had gathered by mid-day, with a few bringing Trump flags to the demonstration. Few of the people in attendance could be seen wearing masks, and most were packed close together.

More protests are expected in the coming days in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Idaho and elsewhere. State officials and public health experts warn that the large gatherings could inadvertently lead to further spread of the coronavirus, extending the need to impose stay-at-home orders and other measures.

Trump on Thursday touted new guidelines from the White House that remain conservative in terms of loosening social distance guidelines. There are fears that relaxing the orders too quickly could cause a surge in infections, though the practices have also contributed to a crumbling economy. 

But Trump's rhetoric has been much more mixed on the issue, and he frequently talks about his aspirations for states to open up their economies by relaxing the guidelines more quickly.

On Thursday, when asked about the protests, Trump said he agreed with most governors.

"I think they listen to me," Trump said Thursday when asked about the protests. "They seem to be protesters that like me and respect this opinion. And my opinion is the same as just about all of the governors."

The tweets mark the latest example of Trump trying to shift attention to governors for their role in combating the pandemic, which has killed more than 33,000 people in the U.S. as of Friday morning, according to Johns Hopkins.

The president has repeatedly bristled at questions about how he frequently downplayed the virus in January and February or his administration's slow response to the pandemic. He has instead sought to blame governors for failing to stockpile supplies for a pandemic and put the onus on them to develop widespread testing capabilities.

Updated at 2:34 p.m.