Donald Trump defied requests from company executives and was called a “petulant child” by a state attorney general when he refused to wear a face mask during a visit to Michigan, a battleground state where he has repeatedly clashed with the Democratic governor, and on Thursday used a speech to urge American churches to reopen amid the pandemic.
Trump toured a plant belonging to the Ford car company, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which has been recast to produce ventilators and personal protective equipment to use in the coronavirus crisis.
Surrounded by Ford executives who were wearing masks, Trump told reporters he had put one on earlier, out of the view of cameras.
“I had one on before. I wore one in the back area. I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” Trump said.
When asked if Trump was told it was acceptable not to wear a mask in the plant, the Ford executive chairman, Bill Ford, said, “It’s up to him.” The company had indicated prior to the visit that the president should wear a mask at the factory.
And the Michigan state attorney general, Dana Nessel, had written to the White House saying it was the law in Michigan that everyone should wear a mask in such a setting – an indoor venue with many people in attendance.
“The president is like a petulant child who refuses to follow the rules. This is not a joke,” she told CNN, adding that Trump’s behavior was “extremely disappointing” and that thousands of people in Michigan have died from coronavirus.
The US death toll on Thursday surpassed 94,000 and there are more than 1.5m confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the nation.
Trump said he tested negative for Covid-19 on Thursday morning, but within the last week two senior White House aides have tested positive, and the president has been taking the drug hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic.
This despite it being not proven for treating the coronavirus and garnering stern warnings from federal regulators and the World Health Organization that it should not be taken for coronavirus outside clinical trials.
Earlier in the visit to the state, Trump held a roundtable discussion with African-American leaders concerning vulnerable populations disproportionately hit by the virus.
Trump has consistently disregarded guidance from the top federal public health experts, both urging people to wear masks in close company and urging states not to rush to reopen while the coronavirus is not under control in the US.
But the president continued his pressure for states to reopen for business nonetheless and on Thursday, at the discussion with African-American leaders, urged the swift reopening of churches for in-person religious services.
He appeared to put pressure on the leading federal agency the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when he told the roundtable: “We are opening our churches again. I think the CDC is going to put something out very soon, spoke to them today. I think they are going to put something out very soon. We got to open our churches.”
But he later acknowledged that if he held political rallies again soon they would be outdoors.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who has clashed in recent weeks with Trump over statewide social restrictions to limit coronavirus, and moves towards mail-in voting during the pandemic, prevailed Thursday in a high-stakes challenge from Republican lawmakers over her stay-at-home orders.
She was sued by the Republican controlled state legislature who disputed the extent of her authority to declare emergencies in Michigan, such as the coronavirus crisis, and mandate the reach and duration of restrictions as a result. The legislature will now appeal, although Whitmer is now moving to gradual reopening.
Early Wednesday parts of central Michigan were hit by devastating flooding after two dams burst, after many years of warnings, following record rains.
And Trump on Wednesday threatened to withhold federal funding from Michigan over its plan for expanded mail-in voting, spuriously claiming that the practice could lead to voter fraud – though he later appeared to back off the threat.
Trump won Michigan in the 2016 election, the first Republican to do since 1988.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed reporting.