US coronavirus crisis takes political turn as Trump calls to 'liberate' states from lockdown

The Republican president targeted three swing states critical to his re-election bid - Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia

U.S. President Donald Trump, center, and Vice President Mike Pence, arrive to a news conference at the White House in Washington D.C., U.S. on Friday, April 17, 2020. Trump said there’s enough coronavirus testing capacity to put in place his plan to allow a phased reopening of the economy, even though some state officials and business leaders have raised alarms about shortages. Photographer: Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

The US coronavirus crisis took a sharp political turn on Friday as President Donald Trump lashed out at four Democratic governors over their handling of the pandemic after having conceded that states bear ultimate control of restrictions to contain the outbreak.

The Republican president targeted three swing states critical to his re-election bid - Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia - where his conservative loyalists have mounted pressure campaigns challenging those governors' stay-at-home orders.

Amplifying a theme that his supporters have trumpeted this week in street protests at the state capitals of Lansing, St. Paul, and Richmond, Trump issued a series of matching Twitter posts touting the slogans: "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA!"

Michigan has become a particular focus of agitation to relax social-distancing rules that rank among the strictest in the nation after Governor Gretchen Whitmer, widely seen as a potential running mate for presumed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, extended them through the end of April.

Protesters defying the restrictions from the steps of the state Capitol on Wednesday shouted "lock her up," a chant that was a staple of Mr Trump's campaign rallies and originally referred to his 2016 Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

Mr Trump this Monday claimed he had "total" authority to set the pace of where and when the coronavirus lockdown ends.

With Thursday's announcement, he gave up on that, saying the 50 state governors will have full control.

Some saw this as a retreat. But political analysts also say Mr Trump wanted the benefit of the big White House announcement while shielding himself from what could be a messy process ahead of election day.

With Mr Trump standing back, this means the onus will rest with people like Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, Ron DeSantis in Florida, Gavin Newsom in California, and Greg Abbott in Texas.

Mr Trump will be on the sidelines, supporting or in some cases castigating, as he did Friday when he berated Cuomo for "ridiculously" demanding federal help to get tens of thousands of ventilators.

Even the decision whether or not to keep up the quarantines is becoming a bitter left-right issue in radically partisan America.

A grassroots anti-lockdown movement with strong links to Mr Trump's right-wing base has mounted protests in several Democrat-run states.

On Wednesday, a large protest erupted in the Michigan capital, Lansing. Demonstrators clogged streets with cars, while a group toting rifles and handguns paraded on the steps of the legislature.

On Friday, hundreds of protesters were reported to have gathered outside the home of the Minnesota governor. On Thursday, other frustrated Americans protested in Virginia.