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Biden slams Trump for claiming victory after jobs reports

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President Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden squared off Friday over whether a better-than-expected jobs report signaled the start of an economic recovery or a reminder of how devastated the economy remains in the still-lethal pandemic.

With the country’s economic and health challenges sure to define the 2020 presidential contest, a rattled White House welcomed the jobs figures as an occasion to claim broader victory over three colliding national crises — the coronavirus outbreak, an economy on life support ,and widespread protests over police brutality and endemic racism — even though none are close to resolved.

Trump, who has seen his reelection prospects sour over his handling of the calamitous events, boasted of “the greatest comeback in American history” in an unscripted stream-of-consciousness monologue that lasted 53 minutes in a steamy White House Rose Garden.

In a speech an hour later, Biden portrayed Trump’s triumphant reaction from the confines of an increasingly fortified White House as premature and out of touch with the economic and health struggles of millions of Americans.

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“It is time for him to step out of his bunker and take a look around at the consequences of his words and action,” Biden said.

The surprisingly positive jobs report showed the nation gained 2.2 million jobs in May as states began to ease stay-at-home orders imposed since March.

Unemployment was pegged at a dismal 13.3%, however, with more than 20 million Americans out of work and tens of thousands of restaurants, shops, businesses and factories still closed. The jobless rate was down from 14.7% in April, and had been expected to get worse.

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 neared 109,000 on Friday, the most by far of any country. But Trump touted the still-rising tally as evidence of a successful government response to the worst public health threat in a century.

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Polls show widespread disapproval of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, from his weeks of dismissing the threat, to his battles with governors and the World Health Organization. He acknowledged none of that, however.

“We made every decision correctly,” he said.

And while he praised law enforcement agencies for quelling protests that have convulsed scores of cities since the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last week unleashed a wave of anguish and calls for change, Trump offered no plan to address problematic policing or racial injustice.

He called the May jobs report “a tremendous tribute to equality,” although it showed that African American unemployment actually worsened last month. And he suggested that Floyd, who was buried Thursday after a funeral that drew hundreds of mourners, would be pleased at the day’s news.

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“Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying, ‘This is a great thing that’s happening for this country,’” Trump said. “This is a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody.”

Trump took no questions in the hastily arranged event, which the White House had billed as a press conference. When a black reporter asked if he had a plan to address racial inequality, he raised his index finger to his lips, shushing her.

Trump has a powerful political incentive to turn voters’ attention to any signs of a nascent economic revival after its near collapse. Polls show the public has more confidence in his handling of the economy than they do his ability to improve healthcare or race relations, although even that confidence has diminished.

Although Trump still leads Biden on the question of who voters trust more to oversee the economy, a Monmouth University poll released this week found voters had more confidence in Biden to handle the “post-pandemic recovery.”

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The poll found 54% of voters said they had a great deal or some confidence in Biden; 47% said that about Trump.

The election may turn on what issue is foremost in voters’ minds come November. Biden, who has expanded his polling lead over Trump in recent weeks, could maintain an edge if worsening racial tensions or a second wave of COVID-19 deaths eclipses whatever gains are made in the economy.

Biden, who spoke on the Dover campus of Delaware State University, a public historically black college in his home state, promised he would propose a “real jobs plan” as part of a package of economic policy proposals that he had planned to begin unveiling this week. They were postponed in light of Floyd’s death and subsequent protests.

The Biden campaign announced he would speak on the jobs report before it was released and before Trump made his appearance. Biden lambasted Trump for his rosy interpretation of the May figures, noting that while unemployment dropped overall, it rose among blacks and Latinos.

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He said he welcomed the new jobs but “was disturbed” that Trump was “basically hanging a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner out there when there is so much work to be done, and so many Americans are still hurting.”

Trump’s comments marked his first appearance before reporters since his controversial walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House on Monday night, moments after federal security forces gassed dozens of peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square to clear a path. Trump then held up a Bible and posed for photos.

The area later was blocked off with metal fences and National Guard troops in a widening security cordon around the White House, leaving the president increasingly isolated and parts of the nation’s capital appearing under military occupation for several days.

Washington’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, asked Trump in a letter Friday to “withdraw all extraordinary federal law enforcement and military presence from our city.”

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Later Friday, the Pentagon said that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had ordered the remaining active duty troops to return to their home base of Fort Drum in New York. Other troops had begun returning to Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

In a powerful message to the president, Bowser also had city public works crews paint “Black Lives Matter” in bright, block yellow letters that stretched from curb to curb on the busy street that leads to the White House. She later tweeted that she had officially renamed that section of 16th Street “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

Gen. James N. Mattis, Trump’s former Defense secretary, and a number of other military and elected officials have spoken out in sharp terms this week, blaming the president for encouraging a law enforcement and military crackdown on peaceful protesters and portraying him as a threat to American democracy.

A handful of Republican lawmakers echoed Mattis’ frustrations, most notably Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who said she was “struggling” with whether to back Trump over Biden, and suggested that GOP lawmakers might take this moment to express their reservations about the president’s divisive style.

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Trump’s former chief of staff, John F. Kelly, a retired Marine general, added his voice Friday to the stream of high-profile politicians and military brass who condemned Trump’s use of the military to clear out protesters.

“We need to look harder at who we elect,” he told Anthony Scaramucci, another former Trump official-turned critic, in an interview. “I think we should look at people that are running for office and put them through the filter: What is their character like? What are their ethics?”

Biden highlighted criticism from Mattis, Kelly and others in a new video ad his campaign released Friday afternoon, calling the president “dangerously unfit.”

Trump trashed Mattis in a tweet and threatened to back a primary challenge to Murkowski in 2022. He referred only to his validators on Friday, thanking the cable news hosts who expressed their enthusiasm publicly over Friday’s jobs report.

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Times staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this report.


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