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President Donald Trump defended Wilbur Ross, who'd said he didn't "understand why" some federal workers in the government shutdown had turned to food banks

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January 25, 2019 11:50 AM

President Donald Trump on Thursday defended comments made by his Commerce secretary, the multimillionaire Wilbur Ross, who told CNBC he didn’t “really quite understand why” some federal workers unpaid in the government shutdown had turned to homeless shelters for food.

Speaking with reporters later Thursday, Trump said that Ross “perhaps … should have said it differently,” but that he understood the point Ross was making: That the approximately 800,000 federal workers who are not being paid in the shutdown should be able to rely on their close local ties with community businesses to essentially work out other ways to still be able to get food and pay their bills.

On CNBC, Ross had said the unpaid or furloughed workers “will eventually” get their pay, referring to a bill signed by the president last week. (Workers in previous shutdowns have received back pay when the shutdowns ended.) And because of the guarantee of these future paychecks, Ross said he believed that banks and other lenders should be “making credit available” to the unpaid workers who need money in the interim.

RELATED: How Real Government Employees Are Suffering During the Shutdown — ‘I Feel Helpless’

Ross said the biggest downside would be workers having to pay “a little bit of interest” on the loans until their back pay is issued.

Trump’s remark — as Ross’ had earlier — drew confusion and criticism on social media, with some piggybacking off of Trump’s history of bizarre remarks about grocery stores. (He said at a rally last year that shoppers needed a photo ID to buy groceries, which is not true.)

“Trump apparently thinks the grocery store will just give you food for free if you tell them your job isn’t paying you,” Justin Baragona wrote on Twitter.

Comedy writer Mike Drucker tweeted: “cant stop thinking about trump entering a grocery store for the first time, walking up to a cashier, and confidently saying ‘i’ll take one food and be quick about it’ “

CNN’s Abby Phillip noted: “In many ways, what Trump is describing a closer to a food bank than a grocery store — many of which are large supermarket chains these days.”

Asked about Ross’ comment, Trump’s reply was:

“I haven’t heard the statement, but I do understand — perhaps he should have said it differently — local people know who they are, where they go for groceries and everything else and I think what Wilbur was probably trying to say is that they will work along, I know banks are working along, if you have mortgages, the folks collecting the interest and all of those things, they work along.

“And that’s what happens in times like this: They know the people, they’ve been dealing with them for years and they work along, the grocery store. And I think that’s probably what Wilbur Ross meant.”

Leading Democrats characterized the administration’s statements as out-of-touch, reflecting the wide gap between a standard worker in America and the mega-rich circles in which Trump and Ross have moved.

RELATED: Lara Trump Says Workers in Shutdown Going Without Pay Is a ‘Bit of Pain’ for the Country’s ‘Future’

“Is this the ‘let them eat cake’ kind of attitude or ‘call your father for money’?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the press after Ross’ interview. “Or ‘this is character-building for you, it’s all going to end up very well?’ “

The government shutdown, begun on Dec. 22, is the longest in American history. It was prompted by a standoff over the president’s call a southern border wall, which Congressional Democrats have rejected as ineffective and immoral.

Trump said a wall is needed to end a “crisis” of drugs and violence coming in from Mexico, though the underlying data for that argument is weak.

In December he had been prepared to sign spending legislation that did not provide money for his wall but abruptly reversed course, and Republicans in Congress have since largely moved to embrace his position.

The shutdown is now in its 35th day.

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