Gov. Jim Justice, who briefly excused himself from a daily briefing about West Virginia’s coronavirus response to take a call from President Trump, concluded today’s remarks by saying he would welcome any president to the state but one.
“I wanted him to know just how welcome he is in West Virginia,” Justice said of Trump. “And any president, you know, we should absolutely welcome all but — maybe not Barack Obama. Nevertheless, we’ll welcome any president.”
Justice laughed as he made the statement, but the line about America’s first black president came as the nation is under enormous tension about race relations.
The Governor’s Office later in the afternoon issued a statement saying “a few politically-motivated individuals began questioning the tone of the comment,” indicating Justice’s perspective had to do with the effects of environmental policy on coal and saying the governor loves everybody, including the ex-president.
“I want to love everybody, and by that, I mean everybody, including President Obama,” Justice stated. “But, at the end of the day, what happened to West Virginia during his time in the Oval Office will take us decades and decades to recover from, if ever.”
West Virginia’s population is 93.5 percent white, according to the U.S. Census. African-Americans make up 3.6 percent of the state population.
Obama visited West Virginia three times during his presidency, once in 2010 to honor the 29 coal miners who died in the Upper Big Branch disaster, again the same year to offer a eulogy for Senator Robert C. Byrd and then in 2015 to highlight issues surrounding the opioid crisis that ravaged the region.
But Obama was deeply disliked in West Virginia, even though registered Democrats still lead the voter rolls. A big part of the disdain was how the Obama administration’s environmental policies were perceived as affecting the economy of coal-focused West Virginia.
In the 2012 Democratic primary, a felon who was on the ballot, Keith Judd, won 40 percent of the vote against Obama in West Virginia.
“Everyone knows that President Obama made it a specific strategy to destroy our coal industry and power plants which, for more than a century, had been the lifeblood of West Virginia’s economy,” Justice stated after Wednesday’s briefing.
“Before you know it, West Virginia was brought to our knees, especially southern West Virginia. I hated that so badly because the good people of West Virginia suffered beyond belief.”
Justice is known as the state’s only billionaire, whose family holdings include coal and timber properties and The Greenbrier Resort. He was first elected governor as a Democrat but then announced he was switching to be a Republican during a 2017 rally with Trump in West Virginia.
Justice often describes his close relationship with Trump and has been making a pitch in recent days for West Virginia to be named host for the upcoming Republican National Convention.
Trump on Tuesday night announced via tweet that the convention would be pulled out of Charlotte because concerns about the spread of coronavirus meant local officials couldn’t guarantee the event could go on at full capacity.
During a call with the nation’s governors earlier this week, Justice spoke up and invited the president to West Virginia.
“Mr. President, can you hear me? This is Jim Justice of West Virginia,” he said. “All I would say to you is if it comes to pass that some states would rather you didn’t come there, you come to West Virginia. Because you’re a blooming hero here, and we’ll protect you in every way. And there won’t be any disturbance whatsoever.”
Today, Justice was half an hour into a daily briefing about West Virginia’s coronavirus response when he was asked a question by WSAZ-TV’s Amanda Barren about the likelihood of the virus spreading during protests and then being carried into businesses that have recently opened.
Justice started to answer and then apologetically said he couldn’t continue.
“I think the president’s on the line, and I’m going to have to pass to Clay and let Clay talk a little bit and I’ll catch this and then I’ll come right back,” Justice said, referring to coronavirus response coordinator Clay Marsh.
Justice was gone about five minutes and then resumed his part of the briefing.
“I just had to jump off. It was the president, and I’ll talk to you about that in just a few minutes,” Justice said.
Asked about the call with Trump later in today’s briefing, Justice said he couldn’t share much of what it was about.
“There’s part of the call that I can’t tell you what it’s about because I don’t have his blessing to let that go, but the call was about a lot of different things,” he said.
One of those, Justice said, was confirmation that West Virginia will not be named the host of the Republican National Convention.
“I’ve pushed it and put it on their radar, saying West Virginia would be a wonderful place for such an event,” Justice said. “But the reality is just this, it is such a longshot.”
Justice continued, “He informed me they probably already had a process in which they looked at us, but they’re probably going to go someplace else.”
But Justice said the call also had to do with the broader situation in the country right now, including the protests in major cities and the economic fallout of response to the coronavirus.
“It’s hard to believe the president of the United States is calling me and we’re talking about this stuff nonstop, but we are. We are,” Justice said.
“So in all of that, he’s making the very best decisions that I think he can make. And I’m trying to funnel and showcase West Virginia at every moment that I possibly can with him and all the people in D.C. because the more dollars we have here and the more opportunities that flow here, the better off we’ll be.”
Justice said he expressed support for the protests around the country, although he has said he does not condone those that turn violent.
“My advice always to him or anyone else is, we all know every single person in this country has a right to free speech,” Justice said. “Every single one of us has a right to protest and show our views and everything.”
Protests were sparked by the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis when an arresting officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Justice has said repeatedly that he was disgusted by the killing.
“That situation that happened to that man is despicable beyond belief. It is murder. I mean, there’s no way around it,” Justice said.
“But that’s not representative of us, especially the people of West Virginia.”
In response to a question about the tone of the call with the president, Justice indicated Trump confides in him.
“I wish to goodness people could see his heart. He really cares,” Justice said. “He puts on a face to be a tough guy. And he really is a tough guy.”