The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump clings to jobs numbers as a campaign life raft — and as a race-relations plan

President Trump, Vice President Pence and other aides listen as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

President Trump grasped onto Friday’s better-than-anticipated jobless numbers as a life raft for his floundering reelection campaign, arguing that the economy is springing back from the coronavirus pandemic like “a rocket ship” and claiming personal credit for its resilience.

The May unemployment rate of 13.3 percent was lower than the 20 percent many experts had predicted and an undeniably positive development for a nation reeling from the spring shutdown. And for a president battered by his handling of one crisis after another and slipping further behind Democrat Joe Biden in virtually every poll, the news delivered a welcome salvation.

Delivering remarks in the Rose Garden, a buoyant Trump said the rebound in hiring was his answer to the fury over racial injustice that has been coursing through America’s cities since the death of George Floyd in police custody.

“It’s the greatest thing that can happen for race relations, for the African American community, for the Asian American, for the Hispanic American community, for women, for everything,” Trump said when a reporter asked for his plan to address systemic racism. “Because our country is so strong. And that’s what my plan is. We’re going to have the strongest economy in the world.”

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

Floyd’s nationally televised memorial service was Thursday, and other services are planned for Saturday and Monday.

Trump’s self-congratulatory victory lap masked the pain and suffering of many Americans, roughly 30 million of whom are receiving unemployment benefits.

And his claim on race relations is undermined by the data itself, which show that the unemployment rate among blacks and Asian Americans ticked up in May to 16.8 percent and 15 percent, respectively, even as it fell among whites to 12.4 percent. Hispanic unemployment also dropped slightly to 17.6 percent.

Trump’s declaration of a swift rebound is politically risky, considering the virus continues to ravage the country, many businesses remain at least partially closed, and this summer’s economic trajectory cannot yet be determined.

Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee, accused Trump of prematurely “spiking the ball” when so many Americans remain jobless and are struggling to feed their families.

“I was disturbed to see the president crowing this morning — basically hanging a ‘mission accomplished’ banner out there when there’s so much more work to be done,” Biden said. He added, “He’s out there spiking the ball, completely oblivious to the tens of millions of people who are facing the greatest struggle of their lives.”

Biden argued that the depth of the nation’s economic devastation is directly attributable to the Trump administration’s failures to manage the pandemic.

“The president who takes no responsibility for costing millions and millions of Americans their jobs deserves no credit when a fraction of them return,” Biden said.

Biden said he is preparing to release a more robust jobs plan that he said will include trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending as well as investments in small businesses. He indicated he had delayed his rollout of that plan because of the nationwide demonstrations ignited by last month’s death of Floyd, a black man whose brutal treatment by police in Minneapolis was caught on camera.

Biden denounced Trump for invoking Floyd’s death in his Rose Garden celebration. “George Floyd’s last words — ‘I can’t breathe.’ ‘I can’t breathe.’ — have echoed across our nation,” Biden said. “For the president to try to put any other words in the mouth of George Floyd is, frankly, despicable.”

Trump had long planned to make the economy his central pitch to voters, banking on a boom cycle to secure a second term. But the pandemic, which shuttered scores of businesses and effectively froze entire industries, scrambled that strategy, though polls show Trump’s handling of the economy to be one of his strongest attributes.

The unemployment rate soared to 14.7 percent in April from 4.4 percent in March, according to the Labor Department. Many economists predicted it would rise further in May because of the pandemic.

But the department’s statistics showed the economy gained 2.5 million jobs in May, as many states began to relax coronavirus restrictions. Trump reveled Friday in so many experts getting it wrong.

“I think it was probably the greatest miscalculation in the history of business shows,” Trump said, though he praised a handful of cable news personalities, including Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network, for having “had confidence in me.”

Since the pandemic forced the closure of much of the economy in March, Trump has longed to play the role of cheerleader for the nation’s economy — even when doing so meant playing down the safety risks and contradicting his own administration’s public health guidelines.

Friday’s jobs numbers gave Trump his best opportunity in recent months to play that role. Soon after their 8:30 a.m. release, the president announced on Twitter he would hold a news conference, and aides scrambled to set up the Rose Garden for the occasion.

It was not a news conference, however, because Trump did not take questions from reporters. Rather, he delivered a 40-minute stream-of-consciousness monologue that covered a smorgasbord of topics, before signing a bill granting more flexibility to businesses beset by the pandemic. At one point, advisers and attendees were given water bottles and cups to keep from overheating under the broiling sun.

“Today is probably, if you think of it, the greatest comeback in American history,” Trump said. Referring to the recovery models predicted by economists, the president added, “We’ve been talking about the ‘V.’ This is better than a V. This is a rocket ship. This is far better than a V. . . . Will it be a ‘V’? A ‘U’? An ‘L’? They had no idea.”

Trump used the numbers to try to pressure Democratic governors to move faster to reopen their economies, arguing that Florida, Georgia and other Republican-led states that were aggressive to reopen are now “doing tremendous business, and this is what these numbers are all about.”

Trump used the stagecraft of Friday’s announcement to try to send the message that America had turned the page on the pandemic, even as the infections and deaths continue. At recent past events in the Rose Garden, seats for aides, reporters and other guests have been positioned at least six feet apart, in keeping with the federal government’s social distancing guidelines.

More than 107,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus

But shortly before Friday’s event began, White House staffers repositioned reporters’ seats significantly closer together. Jonathan Karl of ABC News, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said that the White House press office explained that the decision to move the chairs close together was made because “it looks better.”

“The health of the press corps should not be put in jeopardy because the White House wants reporters to be a prop for a ‘news conference’ where the president refused to answer any questions,” Karl said in a statement.

Trump’s campaign team is making plans to build a messaging strategy around the economic turnaround. “The doomsday scenario for Democrats is the economy returning to life,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.

David Axelrod, who served as the top strategist on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, said betting on the economy is an exceedingly risky strategy for Trump considering the pandemic’s uncertainty.

“It may be that the president’s victory lap today seems very off-key a couple months from now when we’re still struggling with this crisis, and it may have seemed off-key to the tens of millions of Americans who are still unemployed,” Axelrod said. “He was so eager to take a victory lap that he took six. He just kept going around the track, and it’s a little early for that.”

Many economists warn that the jobs report could in part reflect the massive federal aid approved by Congress in late March, rather than the economy’s underlying strength. The federal government poured an additional $1.25 trillion into the economy in the third quarter, with much of that funding taking effect between the April and May jobs reports. Much of that federal aid is now set to peter out, with Americans spending their $1,200 stimulus checks and a $600-per-week increase in unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of July.

Lawmakers have been at an impasse over the next stimulus package. Congressional Democrats have pushed trillions in additional spending to prevent the economy from falling into a protracted recession, while the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have urged a “wait-and-see” approach.

Trump on Friday said the White House will be asking for additional stimulus money, “despite the numbers and how good they are,” citing low interest rates that make it cheap for the government to borrow. He also said he will seek a payroll tax cut and special assistance for restaurants.

Critics of additional spending seized on the jobs report to bolster their case.

“It takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of any” new plan, said Stephen Moore, an outside economic adviser to the White House. “We don’t need it now. . . . There’s no reason to have a major spending bill. The sense of urgent crisis is very greatly dissipated by the report.”

But some other economists said they fear Trump could hurt the economic recovery by pumping the brakes on federal aid prematurely. Ernie Tedeschi, who served in the Obama administration, said it would be akin to “stopping an antibiotic prematurely because you start to feel better. If we let support expire too soon, we could have a double-dip downturn.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.