As governors of states that are at the center of the coronavirus pandemic implore the federal government for more medical supplies to combat the crisis, President Donald Trump is focused on something else: the November election.
Trump was asked on Friday what more he wants the governors to do in order to get the help they need. He said, “very simple: I want them to be appreciative.”
Trump singled out two Democratic governors in particular for criticism: Jay Inslee of Washington and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.
After mocking Inslee for failing to catch on as a presidential candidate, Trump faulted the governor battling one of the nation’s most deadly outbreaks for “constantly chirping — I guess complaining would be a nice way of saying it.”
In a conference call with the president and other governors on Thursday, Inslee reportedly pressed Trump to use his authority to federalize the production of medical supplies, like ventilators and masks. When Trump said that the states should fend for themselves and he was there just as “backup,” Inslee rebuked him. “I don’t want you to be the backup quarterback, we need you to be Tom Brady here,” Inslee said, according to an audio recording obtained by The Associated Press.
The president also attacked Whitmer, for the second day running — apparently still miffed that she told MSNBC ten days ago that “the federal government did not take this seriously early enough, and now it is on us to do everything we can.” Michigan’s governor, Trump said, “has no idea of what’s going on.” He then launched into the sort of broad imitation of a female rival’s voice that was a staple of his act during the 2016 campaign. “All she does is say, ‘Oh, it’s the federal government’s fault,’” the president said.
Trump contrasted those two Democratic governors, who have been blunt about the federal government’s failings, with two others who have appealed to the president’s vanity in an attempt to get his help. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, has been “appreciative,” Trump said. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, had also spoken well of him, Trump noted. “I appreciate his nice words,” the president said. “I really appreciate it.”
Trump’s choice of those two governors was probably not coincidental. Earlier on Friday, his reelection campaign unveiled a schmaltzy new ad — entitled, of all things, “Hope” — that cast his response to the pandemic in heroic terms, and featured video of both governors praising him.
While Trump approved Newsom’s request to declare the coronavirus outbreak in California a major disaster within hours of the governor asking on Sunday, freeing federal funds, the president failed to respond to a similar request from Whitmer on Thursday. Instead, he belittled her in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News Thursday night. “We’ve had a big problem with the young, a woman governor from — you know who I’m talking about — from Michigan,” Trump told Hannity. “She is a new governor and it’s not been pleasant.”
“She doesn’t get it done, and we send her a lot,” Trump complained. “Now she wants a declaration of emergency and, you know, we’ll have to make a decision on that,” Trump said.
Whitmer responded to Trump appearing to not even know her name with a Twitter plea for the personal protective equipment and other medical equipment the state desperately needs from the national strategic stockpile. “Hi, my name is Gretchen Whitmer, and that governor is me,” she wrote. “I’ve asked repeatedly and respectfully for help. We need it. No more political attacks, just PPEs, ventilators, N95 masks, test kits. You said you stand with Michigan — prove it.”
A short time later, Trump used the White House briefing on the public health emergency to vent more at Whitmer and Inslee. He concluded his rant by saying that he had advised Vice President Mike Pence, the head of his coronavirus task force, to not even bother speaking with them. “I say, ‘Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington, you’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan,” the president said.
“If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump said of refusing to speak to the governors of two American states during a global pandemic.
Before calling it a day on Friday, Trump approved major disaster declarations for South Carolina, but not Michigan.
He then took out his iPhone and tried to escape blame for the outbreak in Michigan, which has already killed 92 people, by tweeting insults at the governor. “I love Michigan, one of the reasons we are doing such a GREAT job for them during this horrible Pandemic,” the president wrote. “Yet your Governor, Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer is way in over her head, she doesn’t have a clue. Likes blaming everyone for her own ineptitude!”
Trump’s apparent demand that the governors of American states do him a political favor, though — by praising his response to the crisis on television, in exchange for him unlocking federal aid — strongly echoed the scheme he was impeached for last year. In that case, Trump withheld aid from Ukraine to coerce its president into agreeing to go on CNN and announce a sham investigation of Joe Biden, his likely rival in the November election.
In fact, the situation with Michigan’s governor is almost identical to a hypothetical the legal scholar Pamela Karlan asked members of the Judiciary Committee to consider during the impeachment hearings in December.
“Imagine living in a part of Louisiana or Texas that’s prone to devastating hurricanes and flooding,” Karlan said. “What would you think if you lived there, and your governor asked for a meeting with the president to discuss getting disaster aid that Congress has provided for — what would you think, if that President said, ‘I would like you to do us a favor. I’ll meet with you, and I’ll send the disaster relief once you brand my opponent a criminal.”
“Wouldn’t you know in your gut that such a president had abused his office,” Karlan asked, “that he’d betrayed the national interest and that he was trying to corrupt the electoral process?”