Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Trump defended his decision to move ahead with a controversial large-scale Tulsa rally this weekend amid the pandemic, saying in an interview Friday with Axios that "we have to get back to living our lives" and "we're going to have a wild evening tomorrow night at Oklahoma."

  • Pressed on why he wasn't using his presidential bully pulpit to encourage rally attendees to wear masks, Trump described masks as "a double-edged sword." When asked if he recommended people wear them, he added: "I recommend people do what they want."

Why it matters: Ahead of the rally expected to draw tens of thousands of supporters and protesters, the president's comments underscore his skepticism of the effectiveness of strict enforcement of masks and social distancing to combat the virus that has killed more than 118,000 Americans and devastated the U.S. economy.

  • And his advice flies in the face of warnings from Trump's own government's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
  • Later in the interview, talking about China's renewed trouble with coronavirus, Trump said: "It's hard to stop it. It's the most contagious virus anyone's ever seen. I could look at you, and all of a sudden you have the virus. Or vice versa."

Driving the news: The president stood by his tweet earlier Friday warning protesters that law enforcement in Tulsa will not treat them "like you have been in New York, Seattle or Minneapolis." Trump said, "That's got to be the least controversial of my tweets."

  • "Oklahoma's much tougher on law and order" than some parts of the country, he said, and insisted that protests are packed with anarchists, agitators and looters. "They're all together."
  • He relished the lifting of a health and safety curfew in Tulsa for his supporters and said he has no intention of wearing a mask at the rally and that people should do what they want.
  • "I don't feel that I'm in danger," he said. "I've met a lot, a lot of people, and so far here I sit." (Everyone who meets with Trump, including this reporter, is tested beforehand.)

What's next: Trump says the rally in Oklahoma is part of a broader message that leaders have "got to open up our country" even as the pandemic continues.

  • "We have to get back to business. We have to get back to living our lives. Can't do this any longer," Trump said. "And I do believe it's safe. I do believe it's very safe."
  • He described seeing people handle masks unhygienically. "You know, there was a time when people thought it was worse wearing a mask," he said. "I let people make up their own decision."
  • Trump said they'll hand out masks at the rally.
  • Told that Fauci recommended people wear masks in these large gatherings, the president replied: "Fauci? I'm OK with that. If people want to wear masks I think that's great. I won't be. Not as a protest but I don't feel that I'm in danger."

Reality check from Axios health care editor Sam Baker: Although it's true that public health officials previously told the public not to wear masks, they never said masks made the virus worse. Their advice was motivated largely by a concern that there weren't enough masks at the time to protect health care workers, who could otherwise spread the infection widely.

  • That advice has changed as masks became more available and scientists learned more about how the virus spreads.

What's next: Read more from our interview this weekend in our Axios AM and Sneak Peek newsletters.

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