Well-heeled crowd offers cheers and jeers as president says coronavirus pandemic is ‘disappearing’

Journalist says ‘audience’ is violating social distancing rules, but Trump defends gathering as ‘political activity’ and ‘peaceful protest’

They hustled down the stairs, the rain dabbing their polo shirts and golf attire, as they dashed inside the clubhouse, drinks in their hands and masks missing from their faces.

It was an unexpected perk of their country club membership: being the audience for US President Donald Trump’s hurriedly announced news conference on Friday evening at his course in Bedminster, New Jersey.

They were props in a surreal gathering that violated Covid-19 safety guidelines but gave Trump a stage on which to end his week by falsely claiming the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the nation and endangering his re-election campaign was “disappearing”.

As if it were a political rally, the well-heeled crowd offered cheers and jeers as the president delivered broadsides against his political foes. Club members booed when a reporter suggested the news conference violated social distancing regulations put in place by Governor Phil Murphy.

“You’re wrong about that because it’s a political activity. They have expectations for political activities. And it’s also a peaceful protest,” Trump said. The audience roared when the president suggested that the club’s members “know the news is fake”.

The news conference was not on the president’s daily schedule when it was released late on Thursday. White House word about the addition came less than an hour before Trump began talking.

Trump had flown in from Ohio to begin a three-day stay at the club. He played a round of golf on Friday and then met campaign staff to map out the next few weeks in a race that has seen him consistently trailing Democrat Joe Biden.

Reporters travelling with the president received notice in the morning of a “lid”, which meant no public appearances were expected the rest of the day.

As evening approached and the rain moved in, the lid was lifted.

Aides scrambled to get the club ready. They set up the presidential podium and monitors with the office’s seal in a gilded room with chandeliers.

It was the same room, not far from the fairways, where Trump, on another August weekend three years ago, first said there was blame on “many sides” of the clash between white supremacists and anti-racist protesters that had just occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Reporters arriving at the club before the news conference watched as members, many carrying glasses of wine, hurried from an upstairs dining room to the first floor ballroom. They, like the reporters, had their temperatures checked. Neither group was given the rapid Covid-19 test usually administered by the White House to anyone who will be near the president.

After reporters tweeted that most in the crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder, were not wearing masks, a staff member handed masks to anyone in the audience who wanted one. Most, but not all, put on a face covering.

Murphy had tightened New Jersey’s restrictions this past week after a recent surge of cases. The new coronavirus guidelines require that for any indoor event, “regardless of the room’s capacity, the maximum limit shall be 25 persons”. Face coverings are now required of workers and customers.

Trump argued that a “political event” could have up to 100 people, per the guidelines. But the number of people in that room, when including reporters and Secret Service agents, appeared to exceed that limit, and few were six feet (1.83 metres) apart.

Those concerns notwithstanding, the White House scheduled another news conference at the club for Saturday afternoon. It was unclear whether members would be present.

Aides had suggested to reporters on Friday that the president might sign executive orders that, despite questions about their legality and potential effectiveness, were meant to bypass stalled negotiations about the next round of economic assistance during the pandemic, which has killed more than 160,000 Americans and cost tens of millions their jobs

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