Trump defies virus rules as 'peaceful protest' rallies grow

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Supporters react as President Donald Trump speaks at a Latinos for Trump Coalition roundtable at Arizona Grand Resort & Spa, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is running as the “law and order” candidate. But that hasn't stopped him and his campaign from openly defying state emergency orders and flouting his own administration’s coronavirus guidelines as he holds ever-growing rallies in battleground states.

Democratic governors and local leaders have urged the president to reconsider the events, warning that he's putting lives at risk. But they have largely not tried to block the gatherings of thousands of people, which Trump and his team deem “peaceful protests” protected by the First Amendment.

“If you can join tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets, gamble in a casino, or burn down small businesses in riots, you can gather peacefully under the 1st Amendment to hear from the President of the United States," Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesperson, said in a statement.

Trump’s refusal to abide by health guidelines — even those crafted by his own administration — underscores the extent to which he believes projecting an image of normalcy is vital to winning in November, even as the country approaches 200,000 deaths from COVID-19.

Trump has tried to use this summer's mass protests over racial injustice and police misconduct as cover for his rallies, making the case that, if demonstrators can gather en masse, so can his supporters. So far, Democratic governors have declined to stand in his way, refusing to become a foil to Trump and feed into his narrative that liberals are trying to deny Republicans their First Amendment rights.

Trump’s campaign insisted that it takes appropriate health precautions, including handing out masks and hand sanitizer and checking the temperatures of rallygoers.

But images of thousands of maskless supporters standing shoulder to shoulder remain jarring in a country where sports are still played in empty arenas and concerts have been largely banned. That's especially true for those who have lost loved ones or spent months isolating at home and worry that rallies will further spread infection, undermining hard-fought progress. An indoor rally that Trump held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June was blamed for a surge of virus infections there.

“President Trump believes that people can make their own decisions,” about whether to attend a rally, Jared Kushner, the president's senior adviser and son-in-law said Tuesday on NBC's “Today” when questioned about the message indoor campaign rallies are sending.