Journalists were furious Friday after chairs for them at President Donald Trump’s unemployment statement were moved closer together because it “looks better” than the social distancing recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Photos show that the chairs in the Rose Garden were initially set up at least 6 feet apart, as recommended by the CDC to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Reporter seating has followed the guidelines since April. But the chairs were rearranged Friday because it “looks better,” the press office told the White House Correspondents Association.
Though the White House billed Trump’s statement as a press conference, he took no questions, so the journalists didn’t even need to be there.
Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent for ABC News and president of the correspondents association, attacked the move as a “flagrant violation of CDC guidelines on social distancing.” He charged that reporters were put at risk to serve as a “prop for a so-called ‘press conference’ where the president refuses to answer a single question.”
Trump commented positively on the seating change, despite the health risks. “You’re getting closer together, even you, I noticed,” Trump told reporters. “I noticed you’re starting to get much closer together. Looks much better.”
White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere told CNN that it was his decision to make the change. “It looks better,” he said in an email. “I would remind you that those in the pool are tested. Everyone is temperature-checked and asked if they have had symptoms.”
The reporters attending Trump’s statement, however, were not all tested because they included journalists outside the regular pool of correspondents who cover the president, noted CNN, which also characterized the reporters as “props” for Trump’s statement. COVID-19 can be spread by people with the illness even if they don’t exhibit symptoms, including fever.
People responding to journalists’ tweets criticized the seating maneuver, but some also claimed the social distancing “ship has sailed,” given the ongoing protests in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on May 25. Several also urged journalists to take charge of the chairs — or leave and stop covering the president.