With coronavirus cases nearing 5 million in the United States and average daily deaths topping 1,000, Trump’s retreat to the confines of his private club offered him an opportunity to create a kind of alternate reality in which his presidency is not being beset by numerous crises.
The pandemic, he told the room, “is disappearing. It’s going to disappear.”
Many in the crowd behaved as if the pandemic had already vanished, forgoing guidelines on social distancing, face coverings and avoiding nonessential gatherings.
Playing dual roles as president and business owner, Trump seemed happy to facilitate a carefree evening for his members — despite the health risks.
In the few minutes Trump spent focusing on the health crisis, he presented misleading or incomplete statistics indicating that other countries were facing a new “surge” in infections and the United States’ position as the world’s epicenter for the coronavirus was primarily due to the large number of tests being performed, an argument health experts have continuously said is incorrect.
“We’re constantly showing cases, cases, cases, cases are up,” Trump said. “Well, the reason cases are up because we’re doing, one of the reasons, we’re doing a lot of testing.”
But health experts say it will take vigilant mitigation practices by the public — not positive spin or wishful thinking — to gain control of a virus that has killed more than 157,000 Americans.
Little of that was on display when Trump’s well-heeled golf club members began making their way into the grand ballroom under a light drizzle Friday. Some people had their temperatures checked at the door, many didn’t. The group or more than 100 mingled in one small section of the 5,000-square-foot ballroom, with mere inches between each person.
Asked by reporters if they had been tested for the coronavirus before the impromptu conference, no one in the crowd responded.
After reporters noted the lack of social distancing in the crowd, a club official just told the crowd to “spread out a little bit” because “the tweets are going out.” Masks were also handed out shortly before Trump arrived.
New Jersey guidelines limit most indoor gatherings to 25 people or 25 percent of a room’s capacity, whichever is lower. People are required to wear masks and maintain a distance of at least six feet.
The office of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) referred questions about Trump’s club event to the Bedminster police and the New Jersey attorney general’s office.
“At this time we’re not going to comment on an alleged violation,” Steven Barnes, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said Friday. The Bedminster police did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked why he was staging an event in defiance of state guidelines, Trump denied that the gathering was unlawful. He cited an exemption that allows for indoor gatherings of up to 100 people for political events or protests.
“You have an exclusion in the law. It says peaceful protest or political activity, right?” Trump said. “And you can call it political activity, but I’d call it peaceful protest because they heard you were coming up and they know the news is fake.”
The question drew boos from the crowd and Trump’s response was greeted with applause. The president walked away as his club members continued to cheer.
But as the news conference ended, it remained unclear why Trump decided to stage the unscheduled event.
His lengthy opening statement consisted largely of a rundown of many of the things he has been saying for several weeks. He attacked his Democratic rival Joe Biden, pledged to protect the suburbs, railed against “anarchists” in Portland, blasted Democrats in Congress, threatened legally dubious executive orders and rehashed his administration’s actions on opioids and prescription drug prices.
He promised an executive order soon that would require health insurers to cover preexisting conditions for all their customers.
“This has never been done before, but it’s time the people of our country are properly represented and properly taken care of,” he said.
In fact, it has been done before and is a central plank of the Affordable Care Act, the law enacted under President Barack Obama that the Trump administration is seeking to strike down in a case before the Supreme Court.
Members in the crowd were mostly silent through the president’s remarks, a far cry from the kind of raucous rallies he held before the pandemic. At some point between Trump’s remarks on the “favored-nations clause” for pharmaceuticals and the personnel policies at the Tennessee Valley Authority, a little girl in a yellow dress took a seat on the floor.
Before the 40-minute news conference, Trump briefly stepped out to privately address some of the members of his club, which reportedly has a six-figure initiation fee. He promised a one-of-a-kind show to the group, which included men in golf shorts and gem-tone polo shirts, women in sundresses and a smattering of children in miniaturized versions of these outfits.
“You’ll get to meet the fake news tonight. You’ll get to see what I have to go through,” he told the group, according to CNN, which pulled the audio from a hot mic. “Who’s there? Oh all my killers are there, wow. So you’ll get to see some of the people that we deal with every day.”
But the club’s ballroom, described on a company website as “lavishly decorated” with “exquisite French doors, crystal chandeliers and sconces,” struck some as a poor choice to hold a news conference in a middle of a pandemic that has decimated the economy.
“Who decided it would look good for Trump to speak to a bunch of rich Trump club members about the need to deliver unemployed Americans relief,” Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and a Trump critic who wrote a book titled “Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies To Us,” wrote on Twitter. “All this shows is that Trump isn’t in Washington, isn’t working on this with urgency, and is supported by wealthy loyalists who can’t be bothered with masks.”
As for the president, he has expressed no qualms about the optics of meeting with large groups of wealthy supporters at a time when so many are struggling. He is scheduled to hold fundraisers in the Hamptons and near the Jersey Shore this weekend before returning to Washington on Sunday.
And he is scheduled to hold another news conference — or peaceful protest — at his golf club Saturday afternoon.
David Fahrenthold contributed to this report.