WASHINGTON – As the death toll in the novel coronavirus pandemic neared 100,000 Americans this Memorial Day weekend, President Donald Trump derided and insulted perceived enemies and promoted a baseless conspiracy theory, in between rounds of golf.
In a flurry of tweets and retweets Saturday and Sunday, Trump mocked former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ weight, ridiculed the looks of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and called former Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton a “skank.”
He revived long-debunked speculation that a television host with whom Trump has feuded may have killed a woman and asserted without evidence that mail-in voting routinely produces ballot-stuffing.
He made little mention of the sacrifice Americans honor on Memorial Day or the grim toll of the virus.
In fact, Trump’s barrage of social media attacks stood in sharp contrast to a sober reality on a weekend for mourning military dead – the number of Americans whose lives have been claimed by the coronavirus has eclipsed the combined total of U.S. deaths from wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trump plans to attend a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday and visit Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where the 1814 battle that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” was fought. The city’s Democratic mayor had discouraged the visit, saying it sent conflicting messages about the importance of staying home and protecting other Americans.
Although Trump on Friday had called for worshipers to return to church in person this holiday weekend, Trump himself did not. He played golf on Sunday morning.
Neither White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who had echoed Trump’s call for a return to the pews, nor other representatives responded to questions about Trump’s activities on Sunday.
In the Virginia suburbs of Washington, where Trump played golf at his Trump National club in Sterling, houses of worship could hold services with 10 participants or in larger settings where participants remained in their cars.
Although few churches were open in the Washington area, a coronavirus hot spot, St. John’s Church, a historic church near the White House that Trump has attended a few times as president, held an online service marking Ascension Sunday.
A few protesters gathered at the golf club’s exit on Sunday, chanting “Stop killing us!” and holding up the arresting image of the front page of Sunday’s New York Times: rows of names of the coronavirus dead.
Trump had also played golf at the club on Saturday, the first time he had done so since early in the pandemic. During that outing, Trump was photographed without a mask and standing closer to golfing partners than recommended by federal health officials. The choice to return to the golf course was one of the clearest symbols yet of how Trump is trying to turn the page on a public health crisis that has damaged his standing nationally and may imperil his reelection chances.
In a Twitter response to Trump, the campaign of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden highlighted the rising death toll with images of health-care workers treating the sick and video of Trump playing golf as Democrats have questioned whether the president is capable of empathy.
The White House on Saturday announced that Trump would travel next week to Florida, his fourth trip to a battleground state in as many weeks, as he encourages a return to regular life and commerce in much of the country.
“Cases, numbers and deaths are going down all over the Country!” Trump tweeted, incorrectly, on Sunday.
New cases are declining in most of the former hot spots, including New York City, but are “plateauing,” rather than declining, in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx told reporters last week.
After weeks of near-universal sheltering in place, the overall daily toll has begun to decline, because of a sharp decrease in deaths and reported infections in some of the hardest-hit urban centers. But the virus is accelerating in other areas.
As of mid-May, every state had plans to loosen restrictions on activities and businesses as public health officials urge caution to avoid another surge.
Rural counties now have some of the highest rates of coronavirus cases and deaths in the country, topping even the hardest-hit New York City boroughs, a Washington Post analysis found.
The alarming increase signals a new phase of the pandemic, one of scattered outbreaks that could devastate some of the country’s most vulnerable towns as states lift stay-home orders. The virus has spread rapidly over the past month in places where even a minor surge in patients threatens to overwhelm existing health-care systems.
In 2014, Trump criticized President Barack Obama for playing golf when there were two confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States.
“He’s played a lot of golf, there’s no doubt about it,” Trump said then, in a telephone interview with the “Fox & Friends” program, where hosts had noted disapprovingly that Obama had done so 200 times as president at that point, six years into his presidency.
“And when you’re president you sort of say, like, ‘I’m going to sort of give it up for a couple of years and I’m going to really focus on the job,’ ” Trump said.
“There are times to play golf, we all love golf, there are times to play and there are times you can’t play and it sends the wrong signal,” Trump said then.
Trump has made daytime visits to his own golf properties about 250 times in fewer than four years as president, with evidence that he played golf on at least 118 of those occasions, according to the website TrumpGolfCount.com.
Trump’s Twitter barrage on Saturday evening included crass descriptions of women viewed as Trump adversaries.
Retweeting one supporter in rapid succession, Trump blasted doctored images of Pelosi and two images of Abrams to his more than 80 million Twitter followers. Abrams, who is under consideration as a vice presidential pick by Biden, had “visited every buffet restaurant in the State,” Trump’s retweet said.
“To protect PolyGrip during this pandemic, we have developed 2 options. With the DJT option, she will be able to tongue and adjust her dentures more easily,” Trump retweeted, showing doctored images of Pelosi’s face, one with a “Trump 2020” mask over her mouth and the other with silver duct tape. “With duct tape, she won’t be able to drink booze on the job as much. Which do you think she will prefer? #maga #tcot #kag,” Twitter user John K. Stahl had tweeted.
Pelosi’s office has repeatedly said she does not drink alcohol.
Stahl’s Twitter profile describes him as a retired tech executive and conservative. Trump appears to have scrolled through the account and retweeted numerous Stahl tweets that praised Trump, criticized Democrats and the news media or voiced support for Trump’s view, which is not based on fact, that mail-in voting invites fraud.
Trump also tweeted speculation and conspiracy theories about the death of a young woman who worked for then-Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., in 2001. Scarborough is now an MSNBC host who frequently criticizes Trump. Trump suggested without evidence that Scarborough had an affair with the married staffer and that he may have killed her.
“A lot of interest in this story about Psycho Joe Scarborough. So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die? I would think there is a lot more to this story than that? An affair? What about the so-called investigator? Read story!” Trump wrote Sunday.
Trump had also tweeted on May 12 about the death, asking, “Did he get away with murder?”
Critics responded that Trump was callously forcing the woman’s family to relive her death, and not for the first time. Trump had suggested in 2017 that there is more to the story.
At that time, The Post debunked conspiracy theories around the death of Lori Klausutis, 28.
Authorities determined that she died after losing consciousness from an abnormal heart rhythm and collapsed, striking her head. She was discovered in Scarborough’s office in Fort Walton Beach, on her back with her head near a desk, according to a 2001 police report.
That tweet drew criticism from some conservatives, with Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., tweeting: “Completely unfounded conspiracy. Just stop. Stop spreading it, stop creating paranoia. It will destroy us.”
Trump also claimed Sunday that hydroxychloroquine has “tremendous rave reviews,” despite studies showing that it can be dangerous.
In a Sinclair Broadcasting interview, Trump politicized a study from Columbia University indicating that had stringent social distancing been in place a week earlier, the United States could have prevented 36,000 coronavirus deaths through early May – about 40% of fatalities reported to date.
“Columbia University is a liberal, disgraceful institution, to write that,” Trump said in the interview broadcast Sunday. “I saw that report from Columbia University and it is a disgrace that they would play right to their little group of people to tell them what to do.”