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With mockery of Biden, Trump winks at the anti-maskers

President Donald Trump at a White House news

President Donald Trump at a White House news conference on Tuesday. Credit: Getty Images / Win McNamee

Baldfaced defiance

The president's top health advisers describe continued social distancing, including wearing masks to curb the spread of coronavirus, as critical to the success of his push to reopen the country. But the question of mask or no mask has become a flashpoint in the nation's partisan culture wars.

Donald Trump seems to have picked up on that and picked a side, signaling he is simpatico with those who see the health measure as an assault on their freedom, and who deride others who embrace mask use as liberal sheep. At a White House event Tuesday afternoon, Trump told Reuters reporter Jeff Mason to remove his mask while asking a question and needled him when he refused. "You want to be politically correct," the president said. (See a video clip here.)

On Monday night, Trump retweeted a post from Fox News commentator Brit Hume that showed a black mask covering part of Biden's face and suggested it was a bad look. "This might help explain why Trump doesn't like to wear a mask in public," Hume's tweet said.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at her news briefing Tuesday that "it’s a bit peculiar” that Biden doesn’t wear a mask during remote video interviews from his basement alongside his wife, but “he’s wearing one outdoors when he’s socially distant.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines don't call for mask-wearing when at home with a spouse.

Biden on Tuesday responded to Trump's mockery by calling him "an absolute fool" who refuses to "lead by example." In a CNN interview, the presumptive Democratic nominee accused Trump of stoking cultural opposition to the face coverings when "every leading doc in the world is saying we should wear a mask when you're in a crowd." He continued: "This macho stuff, for a guy — I shouldn't get going, but it just, it costs people's lives."

The former vice president suggested that as many as half of the 100,000 COVID-19 deaths could have been avoided but for Trump's “lack of attention and ego.” Biden didn't wear a mask during the interview, which was conducted outside his house, but he sat 12 feet away from reporter Dana Bash.

A Republican governor, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, pleaded emotionally last week for an end to politicized attacks on those who wear protective face masks. “If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support. They might be doing it because they’ve got a 5-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments,” he said, his voice breaking. “They might have vulnerable adults in their life who currently have COVID, and they’re fighting.”

Murder, he tweets

Timothy Klausutis, whose wife, Lori Klausutis, died in 2001, pleaded in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for the removal of Trump's tweets spreading a baseless and debunked conspiracy theory that she was murdered by Joe Scarborough, then a Republican congressman and now an MSNBC host and harsh critic of the president.

Klausutis reiterated his acceptance of the finding from back then: "Nearly 19 years ago, my wife, who had an undiagnosed heart condition, fell and hit her head on her desk at work" — which was Scarborough's Florida district office, where she was a staffer. "She was found dead the next morning."

He moved on to what's happening now: "I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain." 

Klausutis argued the tweets violate Twitter's terms of service. But the social media platform said it won't remove them, though it's developing ways "so we can more effectively address things like this going forward." The Washington Post reported that Twitter was debating whether to take action on Trump's Scarborough tweets.

There's no sign the president can be shamed into laying off. "I'm sure that ultimately they want to get to the bottom of it, and it's a very serious situation," he said Tuesday when asked if he'd seen the widower's letter. "It's a very suspicious thing … As you know there's no statute of limitations."

Janison: It's only make-believe

Trump's latest attempts to implicate a TV host in a nonexistent murder offers a bookend to his assertion four years ago that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any of his voters, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

Both scenarios come out of Trump's imagination. One was a hollow boast about a hypothetical murder. The other is a baseless smear about a death nearly 20 years ago from an accident caused by a medical condition.

As usual, Trump leaves it to others to "investigate" whether his own allegations are true. And as usual, nothing tangible is expected to result.

Other fatalities bear more useful discussion. On Tuesday, the U.S. had about 100,000 COVID-19 deaths. The administration's delayed response in fighting the pandemic at a crucial time has been well documented.

Twitter: Now with replies

It looks like Twitter declining so far to delete Trump's tweets against the MSNBC host doesn't mean the president still is going to get a free pass for anything he posts, no matter how false.

For the first time, Twitter on Tuesday flagged a pair of Trump’s tweets with a fact-check warning. The president's tweets called mail-in ballots “fraudulent” and predicted that “mailboxes will be robbed,” among other things. Under the two tweets, there is now a link reading “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” which guides users to a Twitter “moments” page with fact-checks and news stories about Trump’s unsubstantiated claims.

Trump responded by accusing Twitter of stifling free speech. "I, as President, will not allow it to happen!" he tweeted.

The move comes after years in which the social media platform has declined to apply its community guidelines and other rules of the road to the 45th president. "We've drawn lines for certain issue areas, including civic integrity and voting," Twitter spokesman Trenton Kennedy said.

The fact warning also was attached to Trump's false claim that "The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone … living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one." Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 8 issued an executive order to send mail-in ballots to all registered California voters — not to undocumented immigrants, as Trump has claimed.

Unconventional brawling

The GOP governors of Georgia and Florida pitched their states on Tuesday as alternative sites for the Republican National Convention as Trump repeated his threats to bolt from North Carolina if officials there don't allow a full-sized crowd.

The Tar Heel State's officials put the onus on national Republicans to detail how they plan to pull off a 50,000-person event in Charlotte safely amid uncertainty from the pandemic, Politico reports.

"I hope that we can find some kind of reasonable accommodation," Gov. Roy Cooper said at a news conference. "But we’re not going to sacrifice the health and safety of North Carolinians, and that's the bottom line." The governor added, "We don’t know what our situation is going to be regarding COVID-19 in North Carolina" and "we have to have options."

Trump said he wants to know “within a week” whether the convention can be held in North Carolina. He noted that Cooper is a Democrat and went on to accuse Democratic officials of not reopening their states “for political reasons,” which he also described as “acting very, very slowly and very suspiciously."

Bridling Biden

In the CNN interview, Biden took exception to Trump and his reelection campaign's frequent suggestions that the 77-year-old Democrat is senile or has lost a step. Asked how he would answer those attacks, Biden said: "Watch me."

"Look, I mean, talk about a guy who's missing a step," he said of Trump. "He's missing something, man."

Biden also addressed the controversy over his earlier comments from an interview with Charlamagne tha God, a popular African American radio host, that if black voters "have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black."

Said Biden: "It was a mistake, number one. And I was smiling when he asked me the question. I shouldn't have been such a wise guy with him. He was being a wise guy and I responded in kind." Biden maintained he has "never, never once" taken the African American community for granted and that "I've got to make it clear why I think I deserve their look."

More coronavirus news

Long Island officially will start the first phase of reopening its economy on Wednesday after a shutdown of more than two months.

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from the region and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced he will meet with Trump in Washington on Wednesday to discuss infrastructure projects and other issues. Cuomo listed several big projects he'd like the state to tackle in partnership with the federal government, including a new Penn Station, a rail link to LaGuardia Airport, rebuilding train tunnels under the Hudson River and expanding the Second Avenue subway in Manhattan.
  • Vice President Mike Pence's press secretary, Katie Miller, returned to work at the White House on Tuesday after a two-week absence because she caught COVID-19. Miller said she's now had a negative test result three times. There's no update on Trump's personal valet who also became infected earlier this month.
  • With polls showing his support among older Americans slipping, Trump announced that seniors with diabetes will be able to sign up for Medicare plans that cap their copayments for insulin at $35 a month beginning in 2021. An odd exchange during the event: Trump asked, "I don’t use insulin, should I be? Huh? I never thought about it." Surgeon General Jerome Adams assured him that if he's not diabetic, his body makes sufficient insulin.
  • Trump’s reelection campaign elevated Bill Stepien, a longtime top political adviser to the president, to the role of deputy campaign manager. Before the Trump presidency, Stepien served as a top adviser to then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
  • Also joining the campaign in a senior role: Richard Grenell, who just stepped down as ambassador to Germany and simultaneously served for three months as the acting director of national intelligence. He purged top career officials and declassified documents to feed Trump's "Obamagate" claims.
  • Fox's Hume, whose tweet about Biden's mask was grabbed by Trump, offered a postscript on air Tuesday: "As vain as Donald Trump is, think of what he goes through everyday just to be seen. He goes through this whole ritual with his hair where he sprays it into submission. He’s obviously very, very concerned about his appearance."
  • Trump on Tuesday warned that Hong Kong could lose its status as a global financial center if China's threatened crackdown there goes ahead, and he promised a "very interesting" U.S. response within days.

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