CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday said he would welcome any president to the state besides former President Barack Obama.
The unprompted comment came during a coronavirus news conference in which the Republican governor took a phone call from President Donald Trump and sought to highlight his relationship with the commander-in-chief ahead of the coming primary election.
“We should absolutely welcome all but, you know, maybe not Barack Obama,” he said, smiling.
His office later walked back the remarks in a statement, saying they were “in jest” and “in regard to the effect that the Obama Administration’s War on Coal had on the West Virginia economy from 2008-2016.”
“I want to love everybody, and by that, I mean everybody, including President Obama,” Justice said in the statement. “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.”
His comment drew criticism almost immediately on social media, with many pointing out that Obama was the first and only African-American president. They also came as days of protests over police brutality on African Americans have gripped cities across the nation, renewing attention on racism in the U.S.
Earlier this year, Justice, a billionaire coal and agricultural businessman without previous political experience, faced scrutiny after calling a mostly black high school girls basketball team “a bunch of thugs.” He later said that “anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd.”
“First of all, I would tell them that I’m really sorry if I’ve done anything that has offended them. But secondly, I would just say this, Barack Obama used that term,” he told local ABC affiliate WCHS-TV in an interview days later.
Justice was elected in 2016 as a Democrat, but announced he was switching parties at a Trump rally less than a year after taking office. He is facing Republican opposition in a primary election next week.