Mehta and Murphy exchange war of words over Trump’s N.J. fundraiser

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Rik Mehta

Left to right: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Rik Mehta. (Office of Gov. Phil Murphy; Rik Mehta/Facebook)

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and the Republican nominee for this year’s U.S. Senate race in New Jersey are clashing over President Donald Trump’s fundraiser at his golf course in Bedminster last week, turning what was initially a public health matter into a full-blown political spat.

Rik Mehta, a pharmacist and attorney who worked at the Food and Drug Administration, is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker this year. He said Murphy was fear-mongering by raising the alarm about Trump’s fundraiser and urging anyone at the event to self-quarantine.

Mehta attended the fundraiser with his wife — both of whom he said wore masks — and reported that many attendees also wore face coverings while maintaining social distance during the outdoor portion of the gathering.

“Based on everything we know from both a public health and a scientific medical perspective, there is absolutely no reason for concern,” Mehta said in an interview.

But Murphy took issue with Mehta’s fear-mongering comment, saying instead that reports of lax COVID-19 mitigation protocols at the fundraiser may have resulted in more virus cases in New Jersey.

“I don’t even know who Rik Mehta is,” Murphy said during his press briefing on Monday before following up. “I think that statement should disqualify him from seeking public office.”

The Thursday night fundraiser in Bedminster came just hours before Trump tweeted that he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the virus. Critics questioned whether Trump knew of his ill health before the event but attended anyway and whether organizers followed the state’s directives for holding events during the pandemic. The White House has said the president learned of his positive test result after the fundraiser, but he did travel to the Garden State knowing Hope Hicks had tested positive.

Trump has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus, which has now killed more than 200,000 Americans, and during the debate belittled Joe Biden for wearing a mask so often to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Aides and other people in Trump’s orbit, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, also tested positive for the virus in the past few days.

Murphy said Trump and his staff “acted recklessly in coming to New Jersey,” adding that state health officials are now conducting contact tracing for attendees. The administration is also investigating whether the fundraiser violated state safety guidelines and will make necessary referrals to the Attorney General’s office, Murphy said.

But Mehta sees Murphy’s consternation over the fundraiser as a “political hit job” against Trump during an election year.

Mehta said it was hypocritical for the Democrat to criticize Trump when Murphy himself has participated in events that may have also run afoul of the state’s coronavirus safety measures.

“He’s been seen marching in political protests without a mask on. He’s been in indoor establishments without a mask,” Mehta said. “It’s been a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach to governing.”

As for whether Mehta is unfit for the Senate, the Republican political newcomer said it is actually Murphy who deserves to be booted from office over the high number of deaths in the state’s long-term care facilities during the pandemic.

New Jersey was one of the earliest states to be hit by the coronavirus and felt the impact especially hard in its nursing homes, where more than 7,000 residents and staff have died.

Critics have pointed to a Murphy administration policy that allowed coronavirus-positive residents to return to long-term care facilities as an error that made outbreaks worse, though the policy directed facilities to accept patients only if they could “cohort” them away from healthy residents.

“This is just a way for him to distract the public from the real issue, and that’s the fact that our elderly are the most vulnerable and he never took care of them,” Mehta said.

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