President Trump on Feb. 5 said Democrats' refusal to cheer during his State of the Union address amounted to 'un-American' behavior. (The Washington Post)

A White House spokesman said Tuesday that President Trump was speaking “tongue in cheek” when he said it was “treasonous” for Democrats not to applaud good news on unemployment figures in his State of the Union address.

During a speech on tax cuts Monday in Blue Ash, Ohio, Trump went off script to criticize Democrats who did not respond enthusiastically when he said last week that unemployment rates among black and Hispanic Americans had reached all-time lows during his presidency.

“Even on positive news like that, really positive news like that, they were like death and un-American,” Trump said Monday. “Somebody said ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Shall we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

On Tuesday morning, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told NBC News that Trump was speaking “tongue in cheek.” The president, Gidley said, was simply trying to make the point that there are positive things going on that all Americans should celebrate regardless of their party, NBC reported.

Gidley did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.

The president’s characterization on Monday drew sharp criticism from Democrats, who said the language was inappropriate.

“Whether I chose to applaud or not applaud is a First Amendment right that our forefathers wrote down and that generations before me have sacrificed many a life for,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “And I would just say the president’s out of line with that statement.”

On Twitter, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) took aim at Trump writing that “ ‘treasonous’ means betraying your country – like, say, if someone colluded with Russia to influence American elections. The freedom not to clap for ideas you disagree with is called the 1st Amendment.”

Democrats have also said Trump is taking undue credit for a trend that began under President Barack Obama. Since the recession’s end, unemployment rates for all demographic segments have decreased, including blacks and Hispanics.

The unemployment rate for black Americans was at its lowest point in history in December after it was more than cut in half during the last three quarters of Obama’s presidency. The unemployment rate for black Americans increased in January, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Trump said Monday that Democrats had decided in advance not to applaud.

“It was a game; you know they play games,” he said. “They were told: Don’t even make a facial movement.”