Trump defends demonstrators protesting social distancing restrictions

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines Priest among those police cleared from St. John's Church patio for Trump visit Trump criticizes CNN on split-screen audio of Rose Garden address, protesters clashing with police MORE on Friday defended protesters defying federal social distancing guidelines to express displeasure with state stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Trump told reporters at a White House briefing that he feels some state orders are “too tough.” He suggested demonstrations in Virginia were also justified because of recently signed gun laws that expand background checks and limit certain firearm purchases.

“I think we do have sobering guidance, but I think some things are too tough. It’s too tough,” Trump said. “Not only relative to this, but what they’ve done in Virginia with respect to the second amendment is a horrible thing.”

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Trump earlier Friday threw his support behind protesters in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia who oppose stay-at-home orders and other restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus, calling to “liberate” those states. All three are run by Democratic governors.

The president said he doesn’t necessarily think those states should lift their stay-at-home orders, only saying he broadly feels “elements of what they’ve done is too much.”

Hundreds of people have gathered at protests in Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Minnesota and other states across the country in recent days to pressure governors to lift the social distancing measures. Some demonstrators have waved Trump flags or worn apparel bearing the president’s name.

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At protests Friday in Minnesota and Florida, few if any demonstrators could be spotted wearing masks, and attendees packed close together in direct contradiction to the president’s own social distancing guidelines, which call for no gatherings of more than 10 people.

State officials and health officials have warned that the demonstrations could lead to a spike in infections and force social distancing measures to remain in place even longer.

But Trump shrugged off the public health dangers, saying the protests were an expression of free speech.

“These are people expressing their views. ... They seem to be very responsible people to me," he said. "But they’ve been treated a little bit rough."

Trump’s backing of the protesters threatens to incite further animosity toward the same state leaders he has said are responsible for ramping up testing, acquiring critical supplies and making the final decision on when to reopen their states’ economies. 

The White House has faced intense criticism for its own failures in developing and distributing tests and protective gear. 

"The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies even while his own administration says the virus is real and is deadly, and that we have a long way to go before restrictions can be lifted,” Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeTrump rule limits states from blocking pipeline projects Inslee says Trump coronavirus response akin to if FDR called Pearl Harbor 'a hoax' Green group proposes nearly T infrastructure and clean energy stimulus plan MORE (D) said in a statement.

Vice President Pence was pressed by Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineGeorge Floyd's death ramps up the pressure on Biden for a black VP Overnight Health Care: Trump says US 'terminating' relationship with WHO | Cuomo: NYC on track to start reopening week of June 8 | COVID-19 workplace complaints surge 10 things to know today about coronavirus MORE (D-Va.) on Trump's tweets during a tense call earlier Friday with Senate Democrats. 

The coronavirus had sickened more than 690,000 Americans and killed more than 36,000 as of Friday evening, according to Johns Hopkins University. Trump has recently touted the social distancing measures as keeping the death count lower than initial projections, declaring optimistically this week that the U.S. had “passed the peak” of infections.

The White House on Thursday issued guidelines that defer to states on reopening decisions, but recommended a three-phase approach, allowing residents to gradually return to something resembling normal life amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.  

Pence and other officials said Friday that there is enough testing in place for states to begin moving to the first phase of reopening. 

Earlier on Friday, Trump demanded that states step up their own testing in a tweet, suggesting it was governors’ responsibility and not that of the federal government to address shortfalls in testing capabilities. 

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Trump and New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoNew York curfew moved up to 8 pm Rudy Giuliani calls on Cuomo to remove Bill de Blasio Amash readying legislation allowing victims to sue officers MORE (D) also butted heads over the federal response to the virus earlier Friday, as Trump chided Cuomo on Twitter and the governor shot back by demanding more federal support for testing. 

“He now says, it’s up to the governors, which he repeatedly said yesterday,” Cuomo said. “OK, I’m going to reopen, I get it. And you don’t want to help on testing, which is a national problem and replicates the same chaos that you created with medical supplies because FEMA wasn’t ready."

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“We need help on testing and we need funding," he continued. "It’s up to the governors, it’s up to the states, well then, provide the funding."

Trump asserted at the start of this week that he had “total authority” to decide when states reopened their economies, an assertion he backed down from after it was disputed by legal experts and governors. 

Cuomo and other governors have consistently demanded more action from the federal government to address testing shortfalls so that states can make a decision on relaxing coronavirus restrictions and begin reopening their economies. The new guidelines call for a three-phase approach for reopening that includes states and counties meeting a series of criteria, though they do not include specific metrics on testing.

Trump has been eager to reopen the economy as the coronavirus closures cause a massive spike in unemployment, even as health experts warn of the need for increased testing and contact tracing capabilities nationwide for the country to begin reopening. 

Trump has described it as states’ responsibility to ramp up testing in their areas, while dismissing questions about testing shortfalls.