GUILFORD — President Trump praised workers at a plant that manufactures coronavirus testing swabs, took swipes at Gov. Janet Mills and announced efforts to help commercial fishermen during a visit Friday that attracted hundreds of supporters and protesters to his stops here and in Bangor.

In a factory storeroom turned into an auditorium with chairs spaced 6 feet apart, Trump was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of about 150 workers at the Puritan Medical Products plant. The company, a major employer in the town of 1,500, received $75.5 million to double its production from 20 million to 40 million swabs to help address shortages of the supplies needed to test patients for COVID-19.

“Now our nation has turned to you,” Trump said, “as we massively increase our testing capacity.”

Trump’s 34-minute speech included a jab at Mills, a Democrat, for the pace of her reopening plan for the Maine economy as the state continues to work to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“What’s she doing?” the president asked. “You got to open this state up.”

It was Trump’s second attack on Mills during his visit. Earlier in the day, at a roundtable with commercial fishermen in Bangor, he compared Mills to a “dictator.”

The statements and visit drew a blistering response from Mills, who issued a statement Friday evening accusing Trump of using incendiary statements to stoke division and fear among Maine people.

“I have spent the better part of my career listening to loud men talk tough to disguise their weakness,” Mills said. “That’s what I heard today.”

Trump also touched on themes from his 2016 election campaign, including the border wall with Mexico – although there were no chants of “build the wall.” Trump said the wall was now more than 200 miles long and would be completed by the end of next year.

He touted his administration’s efforts to combat COVID-19, saying the United States had the most positive cases of the virus because the U.S. is now testing more than any other nation.

“We are now at 20 million tests,” Trump said. “Very shortly we will be well over 20 million tests and when you have more tests you have more cases.”

He also highlighted Friday’s job numbers, saying the experts who predicted the country would lose another 9 million jobs in May were wrong, and instead the nation added nearly 3 million new jobs.

Trump also told the Puritan workers that he’s tested for the virus every other day and he asks for a Puritan swab.

“I shouldn’t tell you this, but I use it every other day,” Trump said to applause and laughter. “I say, ‘Is this a Puritan?’”

Puritan Medical Products said it will have to discard some of the swabs manufactured during Trump’s tour, a company spokeswoman told USA Today in response to questions about the visit. It is not clear how many swabs will be scrapped, or why.

The company described its manufacturing plans for Friday as “limited” – but the disruption comes as public health officials in Maine and other states have complained that a shortage of swabs has hampered their ability to massively scale up coronavirus testing.

Workers in the audience were clearly Trump supporters, many of them wearing Trump shirts or hats.

Rachel Hartford, a Dexter resident who came to the U.S. from the Philippines and became a U.S. citizen this year, has worked at Puritan for six years.

She was proud the president was visiting her factory, and said she would be regardless of which president it was.

“This is once in my lifetime,” Hartford said. “This is really huge. “I’m so happy to be taking part in this country. For me, it’s a big deal.”

“I think he’s fantastic. He supports us little people in rural America,” Louise Thayer, right, said of President Trump. Rachel Ohm/Staff Writer

At an earlier stop in Bangor, Trump descended from Air Force One and was greeted by former Maine Gov. Paul LePage. Protesters and supporters lined up outside the airport as the two attended a roundtable with commercial fishermen that was open to selected media, before Trump boarded a helicopter for Guilford.

Trump announced that he was lifting restrictions on fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. The monument was designated by President Barack Obama in 2016, and it is the only such U.S. monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

He also said he was putting LePage in charge of a task force to open up foreign markets to U.S. seafood and ease commercial fishing regulations.

Mills, who had urged Trump not to visit Maine over concerns about the potential for violence, dismissed the impact of the action and said the fishing industry needs a better trade policy.

She also pushed back against suggestions by Trump that she was damaging the state’s economy with restrictions aimed at protecting the public against coronavirus. Mills detailed the state’s efforts to protect public health with testing, distributing protective equipment, promoting physical distancing and taking other steps that have helped to limit the spread of COVID-19 and prevent more deaths.

“As governor, my responsibility is to protect the health and wellbeing of Maine people and to support our economy – and I will continue to strike that balance,” Mills said. “I urge the president to take his own responsibility to protect the health of all Americans as seriously.”

In Guilford, Trump supporters and protesters began arriving at 8 a.m., long before the president’s scheduled 3:30 arrival. By early afternoon, the crowds had grown to several hundred, lining Water and North Main streets near the Puritan plant.

CROWDS PACK STREETS IN GUILFORD

Josh Barnes and Stephen Elliot, friends from Palermo, walked the crowds carrying AR-15 rifles.

“I’m pro- anybody protesting,” said Barnes, 34. “Including black lives matter. I’m against looting and rioting. Everyone has a right to do what they do as long as it stays peaceable. And we’re helping it stay peaceable.”

He said overall he supports Trump, but “I definitely don’t give him a blank check.”

“I like a lot of what he’s doing but there are things I disagree with him on,” Barnes said. “Overall, I think his record speaks for itself – jobs, military strength but as we’ve seen over the last few weeks that can quickly be taken away by health and other things.”

Mikayla Upcott, 25, of Portland stood with a group of about 50 Trump supporters holding a sign backing the president.

“I am not happy with where our state is at the moment and I feel like our hands are tied with the Legislature and the judicial system and the governor,” Upcott said. “I feel like we need a little bit of federal help and so I’m here to support the president.”

She said she has been frustrated by Maine’s response to the coronavirus and the restrictions on businesses. “I think she’s holding our businesses hostage,” Upcott said of Mills. “I’m hoping the president is maybe able to influence her to let us all go back to work and go on with our lives.”

A protester carries a Black Lives Matters sign to greet President Trump in Guilford on Friday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

She said the Black Lives Matters protesters gathered about a quarter mile down the street are “100 percent valid,” but she is concerned the gathering of the two groups could lead to some unrest.

Louise Thayer and Karen Horn sat in lawn chairs waving American flags to show their support for the president.

“I love him,” said Thayer, 66, of Greenville. “He’s a patriot and he is trying to restore America to what it is, our values, our lifestyle, our Constitution.”

“It looks like those who aren’t his fans are keeping it peaceful so far, so I’m happy to see them out here exercising their rights too,” Upcott said.

Among the Trump critics was Natalia Jacob, 17, who held a sign that read “No Justice No Peace” at the corner of Water and North Main streets, about a half mile from Puritan. “I want to spread awareness and open peoples’ eyes to what’s going on in this country,” Jacob said. “There’s not much I can do as a small town girl, but I can be here holding this sign and hope people start realizing.”

Carl Lydon, 51, of Guilford stood in the same group with a life size painting he created mocking the president. Lydon said he is “not the protesting type,” but was motivated by Trump’s visit to come out.

“This is two-thirds Republican here and I have a lot of friends who are Trump supporters. I want the world to know at least one third of us do not support him,” Lydon said.

Sheriffs deputies from all but two Maine counties – Androscoggin and York, were on hand, according to the Maine Sheriff’s Association, and the two groups of protesters and supporters largely kept their distance.

Trump supporters gather on Water Street in anticipation of President Trump’s arrival in Guilford on Friday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The visit coincided with the release Friday of new employment figures that showed a surprising decline in the national unemployment rate, to 13.3 percent in May from 14.7 percent in April. The figures indicate that the economy may be recovering more quickly than expected, as states begin to reopen even though, in some areas, coronavirus cases continue to increase.

Trump hailed the new figures in a White House news conference Friday morning, casting the economy as his answer for addressing poverty and improving race relations in a nation that has been seared by protests over the killing of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody in Minneapolis.

Protesters block an intersection near the Bangor airport, where President Trump arrived for a visit to Maine on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

INTERSECTION BLOCKED AS PROTESTERS SPEAK OUT

As Trump spoke at the Bangor fisheries roundtable at 2:30 p.m., protesters took over part of a roundabout near the entrance to the airport, chanting “Say his name! George Floyd.”

Police tried to get protesters out of the highway, and several U.S. Customs and Border Patrol vehicles arrived, setting off cries of “Nazis!” among protesters. Maine State Police arrived, and some officers donned riot gear.

Soon after, the sound of helicopters from Trump’s departure for Guilford attracted the attention of protesters, some of whom jeered and made obscene gestures. The crowd gradually dispersed and the roundabout was cleared without incident.

Some organizers had asked protesters to rally in Bangor instead of traveling to Guilford. The leaders of “We Are Maine” warned protesters that they could face additional risks in Guilford, including from armed Trump supporters.

Delores Mekrut, who is 92, and her daughter Cheryl Harry, both of Orono, participate in the protest. “I had to be here,” said Mekrut. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Critics of the president, bearing signs, banners and other expressions of their opposition, began filtering into an overflow parking lot near the airport Bangor at midday.

Among them were Nancy and Chuck Huus, of Unity, with a sign that read: “Super Callous Fragile Racist Sexist Not My POTUS.”

Their message to Trump?

“Please step down,” Chuck Huus said. “We’re in a mess, through no small part of his doing. It’s a sad situation.”

Nancy Huus said she’s been encouraged that more people are speaking out against Trump, including his former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. She said it was important to be here, even if there was little hope of Trump hearing her message.

“Whether this does anything or not – I’m not being complacent,” she said.

Harley Firth, 50, of Bangor, said his presence had nothing to do with Trump. He was there in solidarity with protesters throughout Maine and the country rallying for an end to systemic racism.

“It’s to send a message to the rest of the country,” Firth said. “This has nothing to do with Donald Trump. It’s about a much bigger issue than that.”

Several hundred Trump supporters bearing their own signs, banners and MAGA gear lined Maine Avenue, about a mile and a half away.

Rick Genevose, 68, of Exeter, was seated with a sign reading: “Trump Thrills. Dump Mills.” He supports Trump because he projects toughness.

“All of the beatings this man has taken from the deep state, the Russia hoax and impeachment, and today he comes back with millions of new jobs,” he said. “No one else could take this heat and be attacked seven days a week and come back.”

Tony Pearson, 40, and Greg Annaloro, 32, traveled to Bangor from Buxton to support Trump. Both wore Trump flags as capes, had homemade Trump hats and wore American flag-patterned clothing.

Greg Annaloro and Joe Pearson, of Buxton.  Randy Billings/Staff Writer

Pearson said it was important to show support for Trump, as cities across the United States are seeing mass protests against the Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.

“With all of the chaos, we need to stand behind our president,” he said.

BIDEN CONDEMNS TRUMP RESPONSE

Former Vice President Joe Biden on Friday condemned Trump’s response to the coronavirus as “incompetent” and “bungled,” saying 36,000 American deaths could have been avoided if the president had taken action a week earlier.

The statement released by Biden, the likely Democratic nominee for president, came hours before Trump’s visit to Maine. Biden said that “no amount of campaign-style excursions can change the fact that Donald Trump has been completely absent during this crisis.”

“Mainers know the truth. They understand that President Trump was woefully late in acting on the coronavirus pandemic and fatally slow in providing PPE and tests to coronavirus hotspots. He’s now hoping we buy his revisionist history on his administration’s incompetent and bungled response to this public health crisis. It’s a response that contributed to the deaths of 95 Mainers and has forced 168,000 Mainers to file for unemployment,” Biden said in the statement.

The Republican National Committee released a response to Biden’s statement that highlighted federal funding that has been directed to Maine healthcare providers and small businesses.

“Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, there has been no stronger leader for Maine than President Trump. From sending Maine healthcare providers more than $145 million in funding, to saving more than 370,000 Maine jobs through the Paycheck Protection Program, Mainers will remember that President Trump showed up for them when they go to the polls in November,” spokesperson Andrew Mahaleris said in a statement.

Mills raised concerns earlier this week about the potential for “unrest” during Trump’s planned visit. In a phone call with Trump and other governors, she voiced concerns about security if Trump did come to Maine.

“I’m very concerned that your presence may cause security problems for our state,” Mills said in the call, an audio recording of which was shared on You Tube by PBS Newshour. “We don’t have them yet, so I’m concerned about that.”

Trump responded to Mills by saying, “We’ll look into that.”

“We have a tremendous crowd of people showing up as you know,” Trump said. “And I think most of them are very favorable. They like their president. But we’ll talk to you about that, certainly.”

In a Facebook post this week, Piscataquis County Sheriff Robert Young said that he hopes “folks will let the employees of Hardwood Products/Puritan Medical Products have their moment of recognition, as the President, on behalf of the nation, expresses our collective thanks.”

“In ordinary times, a presidential visit to Guilford, Maine would be a great thing, regardless of who the president is,” Young wrote. “Sadly, at this time, our nation is so full of strife and rancor, that the good nature of his coming is overshadowed by the politics of our time.”

 

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