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Trump calls to 'liberate' states where protesters have demanded easing coronavirus lockdowns

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WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump called on supporters Friday to "liberate" states that have experienced protests over coronavirus lockdowns, a day after he unveiled guidelines aimed at reopening the nation's economy.

Less than 24 hours after declining to name states he felt are prepared to begin easing social distancing guidelines to halt the spread of the virus, Trump named Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota as states that could benefit from what he described as liberation.

"LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" Trump posted in a series of all-caps tweets. 

Trump has lurched from slamming Democratic governors, to saying he has developed friendships with them and back to attacking them. In a series of combative tweets Friday, Trump defended his performance on the virus, renewed his criticism of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and attacked his predecessor, President Barack Obama. 

All three states that Trump called to "liberate" are led by Democratic governors, and all three have experienced protests in recent days demanding a rollback of stay-at-home orders. Demonstrators drove thousands of vehicles to Michigan's state Capitol this week to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order, for instance. 

It was not clear exactly what Trump meant with the tweets. The only context he offered came with a third "liberate" tweet, directed at Virginia, in which he urged supporters to "save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!" The White House did not immediately respond to a request for further information about the president's intention. 

Critics said the president appeared to be encouraging protests in the states, all three of which are also important for the presidential election.    

 "He's encouraging them to attack state authorities in the midst of a health crisis," Joanne Freeman, a Yale history professor who has studied anti-government violence, posted on Twitter. "He's slashing at states to gain the loyalty of all those who 'like' him, regardless of the impact."

Bradley P. Moss, a national security lawyer, described the tweets as a "disgusting" use of the presidential bully pulpit.

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"Nothing about the president’s remarks explain what these states are doing that conflicts with the president’s own guidelines for reopening," Moss said. 

Michigan is a key state to Trump's re-election bid this year. In 2016, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the Wolverine State since 1988, though he won it by less than 11,000 votes. Trump narrowly lost Minnesota four years ago but it is one of his top targets this year. 

Trump declined to say which states he thought should move toward reopening under new guidelines he announced Thursday. He said that 29 states were "in the ballgame" and would "be able to open relatively soon." The new non-binding guidelines recommend that states adopt a phase approach to reopening only after experiencing a downward trajectory of new coronavirus cases for two weeks. 

President Donald Trump claims authority over states
When asked about states' rights to decide when to reopen schools and businesses, Trump said, "The president of the United States calls the shots."

Trump tweeted that Cuomo, also a Democrat, should "spend more time 'doing' and less time 'complaining.'" Speaking during his daily press conference on Thursday, Trump suggested that governors would be empowered to make decisions on when to reopen their states and ease stay-at-home orders. 

"Over the next very short period of time it's going to be up to the governors, we're going to work with, we're going to help them but it's going to be up to the governors," Trump said. "I think they're going to – I think you're going to see quite a few states starting to open."

Cuomo, who was asked about the tweets during his daily news conference Friday, dismissed the comments.

“First of all, if he’s sitting home watching TV, maybe he should get up and go to work, right?” he said. “Second, let’s keep emotion and politics out of this and personal ego, if we can. Because this is about the people and it’s about our job. Let’s try to focus on that.”

Contributing: Bart Jansen