By Associated Press
BEDMINSTER, N.J. (AP) — 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 President Donald Trump’s hurriedly announced news conference Friday evening at his course in Bedminster, N.J.
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 Gov. Phil Murphy, D-N.J.
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“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 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 Friday and then met with campaign staff to map out the next few weeks in a race that has seen him consistently trailing Democrat Joe Biden. Reporters traveling 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, Va.
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 staffer handed masks to anyone in the audience who wanted one. Most, but not all, put on a face covering.
‘You’ll get to meet the fake news tonight. You’ll get to see what I have to go through. 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.’
President Trump, referring to assembled members of the traveling White House press corps, in comments to members of his New Jersey golf club
Trump addressed the crowd before reporters entered. In remarks caught on the White House live-stream feed, the president said: “You’ll get to meet the fake news tonight. You’ll get to see what I have to go through. 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.”