In Exchange for Aid, Trump Wants Praise From Governors He Can Use in Campaign Ads

Trump extorts praise from Democratic governors, then uses it in a campaign commercial that casts him as the hero of the coronavirus crisis.

A screenshot from a gauzy new campaign ad for President Donald Trump, featuring praise for his response to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Donald J. Trump YouTube channel

As he increasingly tries to shovel blame for the shortage of medical supplies onto the governors of states with densely populated areas that are suffering the most from the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump was asked on Friday what more he wants them to do. It was, 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 spoke as the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Michigan spiked on Friday, to more than 3,600, triple what it was on Monday. The day before, Dr. Deborah Birx, a retired Army Colonel advising the White House, had identified Michigan’s Wayne County, which includes Detroit, as a potential hot spot for new infections.

While Trump maintained that he was not expecting the governors to be appreciative of just his efforts, but those of the federal government he leads — which, he claimed, “has done a hell of a job” — his monologue eventually returned to his discontent with their lack of personal gratitude to him. “We have done a job the likes of which nobody’s seen,” Trump said. “I think they should be appreciative, because you know what, when they’re not appreciative to me, they’re not appreciative to the Army Corps, they’re not appreciative to FEMA, it’s not right.”

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.”

The governor told WWJ-AM in Detroit on Friday morning that she had been trying to get on the phone with Trump at about the same time he was lambasting her in a call to Hannity. “I reached out to the White House last night, asked for a phone call with the president,” she said, but never heard back.

Earlier in the week, Whitmer told a local radio station that one hospital in her state had received a shipment from the federal government last week with just 747 masks, 204 gowns, 64 face shields and 40,467 gloves. “With the exception of the gloves, that allotment of PPE didn’t cover one shift,” she said.

On Friday, the governor told CNN that, after Trump had asked governors to procure their own medical supplies, her state had placed a large number of orders — only to be told later by suppliers that they had been instructed to send the items to the federal government instead.

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 and Puerto Rico, 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?”

Update: Saturday, March 28, 5:55 p.m. EDT
On Saturday afternoon, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reported on Twitter that she had spoken with Vice President Mike Pence and thanked the White House for declaring a major disaster declaration for Michigan, freeing up federal assistance for the state, two days after it was requested. She also thanked the FEMA for a new shipment of 112,000 N95 masks to her state’s emergency operations center.

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