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White House makes reporters sit closer and defy social distancing because it "looks better"

The White House rearranged the seating at a press event Friday to make reporters sit closer together — defying the government's own social distancing guidelines — because staff thought it "looks better," according to the White House Correspondents' Association president. Reporters expressed concern that the White House was putting their health at risk for better optics.

Reporters posted photos showing that prior to President Trump's media event in the Rose Garden, the seats had been spaced farther apart to allow social distancing. This has been a regular practice during the coronavirus pandemic. But shortly before Mr. Trump started speaking, White House staff moved the chairs much closer together.

CDC guidance recommends that people should stay at least six feet apart, avoid crowds and not gather in groups to help contain the spread of coronavirus.

ABC News' Jon Karl, the president of the White House Correspondents' Association, said that when reporters asked for an explanation, "the White House press office told us 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 posted on Twitter.

The Rose Garden event had been billed as a news conference, but Mr. Trump did not end up taking any questions from the reporters packed before him. The president spoke for more than 50 minutes, mostly about job numbers that show a recovery from the depths of the pandemic-related shutdowns. He ignored or waved off reporters who shouted questions. 

Mr. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials on the podium did not wear masks or practice social distancing on the podium during the event.

At one point, Mr. Trump remarked that he thought it looked better to see the reporters sitting near each other.

"I notice you're starting to get much closer together — looks much better, I must say," he said to the press. "Not all the way there yet, but you'll be there soon."

Later in the day, the president showed disregard for social distancing protocols during a visit to Puritan Medical Supplies, a swab manufacturer in Gilbert, Maine. Mr. Trump did not wear a mask during the trip, in keeping with his general reluctance to be seen in one during his recent travels.

"I'm not supposed to do this," Mr. Trump said as he called over an employee to take a picture by his side. 

This week saw greater challenges to social distancing nationwide as protesters in dozens of cities gathered for mass demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice. Some health experts and local politicians said they worried that the protests could cause new surges of coronavirus. The illness has killed more than 108,000 Americans as of Friday afternoon, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Mark Knoller contributed reporting.

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