After Donald Trump characterized houses of worship as “essential services” and called upon governors to open them “right now,” Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany faced questions from reporters about what the president’s authority was to force state officials to do so.
But she also drew pushback when she claimed that reporters in the White House briefing room wanted to see churches remain closed.
In some states, churches have been closed amid the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on large gatherings.
At today’s briefing, CBS News’ Ben Tracy asked McEnany, “If a governor does not allow that, does the White House support churches that defy these executive orders?”
She replied: “The president has been very clear. He wants to see churches reopen in accordance with these guidelines.”
“The answer is yes?” Tracy asked.
She responded, “I gave you an answer, and the president would like to do it in accordance with the CDC guidelines.”
Then Tracy pressed her on what provision of federal law would allow the president to override a governor on the issue.
She replied, “The president will strongly encourage every governor to allow their churches to reopen, and boy, it is interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.”
After that remark, Reuters’ White House Correspondent Jeff Mason took issue with her comment.
“I object to that,” he said. “I go to church. I’m dying to go back to church. The question we are asking you and would have liked to have asked the president and Dr. [Deborah] Birx is, is it safe? If it is not safe, is the president trying to encourage that, or does the president agree with Dr. Birx that people should wait.”
McEnany replied, “Jeff, it is safe to reopen your churches and you do so in accordance with the guidelines which are laid out in very stringent detail here,” outlining some of the provisions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
McEnany also said that it was a First Amendment issue, “the same amendment that gives you all the ability to ask me questions is there to have the freedom of worship, so imams and pastors can go to their churches, go to their places of worship, and can celebrate what is a First Amendment right in this country, which is to pray to your god and to practice your faith.”
Separately today, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state will issue guidelines by Monday for reopening houses of worship, despite Trump’s insistence that they be allowed to reopen immediately for in-person services.
The White House last month set out guidelines for states to reopen their economies, but Trump has sided with protesters who want immediate reopenings. Some saw his latest announcement about houses of worship as yet another way to exploit cultural divisions. “He does not have a lot of authority,” Gloria Borger said on CNN. “He can create a lot of chaos.”
McEnany’s briefing also had another odd moment with the White House reporter for One America News Network, known for its pro-Trump coverage. OANN’s correspondent, Chanel Rion, asked her “if the President has considered pardoning President Obama for illegally wiretapping, illegally spying on citizens, and other potential crimes out there.”
Rion’s question appeared to be a way for McEnany to go to one of her talking points, as she went to a series of pre-prepared slides about the Michael Flynn case and Obama, Joe Biden and Susan Rice. “It’s a long weekend, you guys have three days to follow up on those questions, and I certainly hope the next time I ask, some hands go up, because Obama’s spokesperson should be asked those questions, because President Trump’s spokespeople certainly would be.”
Rion did not have a seat at the briefing, but stood off in the back of the room, despite White House Correspondents Association guidelines on social distancing during the coronavirus crisis. She previously has done so, and has said that she was there at the invitation of the press secretary.