Donald Trump was condemned on Friday for making the “revolting, enraging, disrespectful” claim that George Floyd, an African American man killed by police, is looking down from heaven and praising the US economy.
The president attempted to take a victory lap after a better-than-expected jobs report showed the national unemployment rate falling to 13.3% last month, with 2.5m jobs gained. But there was a slight uptick in African American joblessness.
In White House remarks that folded digressions within digressions, Trump declared: “Today is probably, if you think of it, the greatest comeback in American history.”
Speaking after the 10th night of mass anti-racism protests across the country, Trump suggested that Floyd, who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, would be happy about the figures.
“Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying this a great thing that’s happening for our country,” he said. “There’s a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody. It’s a great day for everybody. There’s a great, great day in terms of equality.”
The comment earned swift opprobrium. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said: “George Floyd’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ have echoed all across this nation and, quite frankly, around the world. For the president to try to put any other words in the mouth of George Floyd I frankly think is despicable.”
Michael Steele, who is African American, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told the MSNBC network: “It’s not only tone deaf, it’s borderline blasphemous in light of what happened to Mr Floyd.
“I doubt George Floyd is in heaven looking down going, ‘Oh gee, great jobs report!’ Are you kidding me? Again, it speaks to just how out of step this man is with real life. This reality television presidency is incompatible with democracy, it’s incompatible with governing, it’s incompatible with everyday people trying to realise the American dream.”
Defenders of Trump argued that he was being willfully misconstrued. America First Action, a pro-Trump Super Political Action Committee, claimed in a tweet that his remark was taken “out of context”. Moments before referencing Floyd, Trump had said: “Equal justice under the law must mean that every American receives equal treatment in every encounter with law enforcement, regardless of race, color, gender or creed.”
The official White House Twitter account highlighted that comment in an apparent damage limitation exercise. But Democrats and other critics were unconvinced, noting that Trump had specifically tied Floyd’s imagined happiness to Friday, the day of the jobs report.
Brandon Gassaway, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said: “Trump’s claim is revolting, enraging, disrespectful – a slap in the face and a descent to the lowest possible level of discourse. Trump has no concern or regard for the feelings of anyone and will take every opportunity, even trampling on the memory of George Floyd, to commemorate a jobs report that shows fewer than half of black adults currently have a job and that fully 21 million Americans are unemployed.”
The surprise increase in jobs came after economists had predicted a rise in unemployment to 20% as America reels from the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide lockdowns. But the new rate of 13.3% is still far higher than previous peak unemployment, which was 10.8% in 1982.
Most of the 2.5m jobs gained over the month were in hospitality and leisure, an industry that lost 7.5m jobs in April as states went into quarantine. Analysts Capital Economics wrote that the report generated mixed feelings of “optimism, skepticism and anguish”.
They expect the economy to recoup about 60% of lost jobs by year-end with the unemployment rate dropping to 8-10%.
The president has been fiercely condemned for mishandling the pandemic and showing little empathy for minorities who suffered the worst of its health and economic effects, then for responding to nationwide protests by ordering law enforcement to “dominate” the streets and even threatening to deploy the military.
But Trump will hope the May report boosts his chance in November’s election against former vice-president Biden. In April, Jason Furman, a former economist in the Barack Obama administration, predicted: “We are about to see the best economic data we’ve seen in the history of this country” – a suggestion that reportedly alarmed Democratic strategists.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden on Friday, Trump struck a triumphal note, likening the economy to a healthy patient making a quick recovery. “This is outstanding, what’s happened today,” he said. “Now, they thought the number would be a loss of 9m jobs and it was a gain of almost 3m jobs.
“The numbers are great, and this leads us on to a long period of growth. We’ll go back to having the greatest economy anywhere in the world. Nothing close. And I think we’re going to have a very good upcoming few months.”
Some commentators have expressed hope that, having been put into an induced coma, the economy could make a “V-shaped” recovery. Trump again brushed aside warnings from public health experts and urged state governors to push ahead with economic reopenings.
“Now we’re opening, and we’re opening with a bang,” he said. “We’ve been talking about the V. This is better than a V. This is a rocket ship.”
Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent of PBS News, asked Trump if he has a plan to address systemic racism. He replied: “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.
“Because our country is so strong, and that’s what my plan is. We’re going to have the strongest economy in the world. We almost are there now … And now we’re going to have an economy that’s even stronger.”
Although the unemployment rate for white people decreased from 14.2% to 12.4%, the rate for African Americans went up from 16.7% to 16.8%. When Alcindor challenged Trump on this point, he dismissed her with a wave and said: “You are something.”
Democrats dismissed Trump’s bombast and said he was out of touch with the pain and anguish felt by millions, particularly African Americans.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, said: “With nearly 20m people out of work and unemployment among African Americans increasing, now is not the time to be complacent or take a victory lap. Thirteen per cent unemployment number is not ‘joyous’ or ‘stupendous’ as President Trump has wrongly stated.”
Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Obama, tweeted: “Depression-era unemployment, 100,000+ dead, millions sick, massive protests, police riots, and Trump is giving a celebratory press conference. Not sure I’ve ever heard a president sound so divorced from the reality that most Americans are facing. Hilariously out of touch.”