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Ypsilanti — President Donald Trump during a visit to southeast Michigan on Thursday touched on themes that have been hallmarks of his presidency and more recently of his administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The president emphasized the need to revive American manufacturing, vowing to make the United States the world's "premiere" pharmaceutical manufacturer and drug store, a bid to create American jobs and effectively reshore critical pharma and medical device products from overseas.

He blamed China, site of the first known cases of COVID-19. And he repeatedly stated his desire to reopen the country, as stay-at-home orders remain in place in some states including Michigan. 

Framed with his familiar "America First" riff and its "buy American, hire American" tagline, Trump's comments came during his visit to Ford Motor Co.'s Rawsonville Components Plant here, where the automaker is producing ventilators to battle the COVID-19 pandemic even as its car and truck plants this week are restarting production after a two-month shutdown.

Ford has a federal contract to build 50,000 ventilators. General Motors Co. has a contract to build 30,000. Detroit's automakers have also been producing personal protective equipment; Ford, for example, to date has made 17.5 million face shields.

"We lost too many," the president said of the nearly 95,000 American deaths attributed to coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. "It came from China. It should have been stopped in China."

Trump's visit, punctuated by sweeping historical references to Ford's role in the "Arsenal of Democracy" that helped win World War II, is among several stops he's made on a presidential tour touting efforts by American manufacturers to produce medical supplies and personal protective equipment during the pandemic. He visited mask factories in Arizona and Pennsylvania earlier this month.

"Because of the virus," Trump said, "Ford was forced to stop production for the first time since World War II" — prodding engineers, executives and line workers to coalesce around a plan to produce masks, face shields and ventilators in partnership with GE Healthcare, among others. 

"One month ago, Ford had never built a single ventilator," the president added, indirectly referring to the evolution of an "Arsenal of Health" developed by Detroit's automakers. "And now you're a world leader. That's not bad."

Trump arrived in a Michigan reeling from the ravages of a COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 5,000 lives across the state, caused an unemployment rate pushing 23% — the highest in the post-war era — and prompted escalating fights between Trump, a Republican, and the state's top three officeholders, all Democrats.

The president on Thursday again slammed mail-in balloting and complained without evidence that it is "wrought by fraud and abuse.”

“We don’t want to have vote-by-mail,” Trump told reporters. "Now, if you’re president of the United States and you live in Florida and you’re not able to be there, you should be able to send in a ballot.”

His remarks come a day after Trump threatened to pull federal money for Michigan and Nevada over plans to expand mail-in balloting. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson had announced this week that absentee ballot applications would be mailed to qualified Michigan voters ahead of the August and November elections to encourage safe voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Before leaving Washington on Thursday, Trump did say he would support exceptions for mail-in voting for those who are sick or "if there’s a reason for it." Michigan law already allows voters to cast ballots by mail for any reason. The president himself voted absentee by mail as recently as this March in Florida's Republican presidential primary, according to the Associated Press. 

Trump in Ypsilanti declined to discuss what type of funding he was threatening to cut off from Michigan: “There are so many forms of funding," he said. "What we want is good, straight, honest voting." 

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Thursday released a statement criticizing Trump for the funding threat: "In the wake of disaster, Donald Trump once again showed us who he is — threatening to pull federal funding and encouraging division."

There is little evidence to support the claim that mail-in voting leads to fraud, experts say. Vincent Hutchings, a University of Michigan political science professor, this week told The Detroit News: "It's widely known there is very little evidence of voter fraud. ... (Mail-in voting) not a terribly controversial or novel idea, and there's no evidence that it benefits a particular party."

Trump toured the Rawsonville Components operation, where the automaker Ford builds ventilators for the national stockpile, with Ford executives, including CEO Jim Hackett and Executive Chairman Bill Ford. 

Trump was not wearing a mask, despite the Dearborn automaker's safety protocol requiring them to be worn inside the factory. The president, who is often tested for COVID-19, has been reluctant to appear in public with his face covered. 

Trump did not wear a mask in front of reporters during Thursday's visit. He said he had been wearing one when he was talking with Ford executives away from the press but  "didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it."

He held a navy blue mask in his hand but did not put it on. The music playing overhead was Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down," according to a pool report.

Asked whether the automaker had told the president he didn’t have to wear a mask, Bill Ford said: “It’s up to him.” Later, the automaker confirmed that Trump wore "a mask during a private viewing of three Ford GTs from over the years. The president later removed the mask for the remainder of the visit.”

In a statement, the United Auto Workers said: "Despite some in the president’s entourage not following health and safety protocols in the plant today, we want to make it clear that the CDC guidelines have not changed and it is vitally important that our members continue to follow the protocols that have been put in place to safeguard them, their families and their communities. 

"This deadly virus has taken the lives of 25 of our UAW members already and thousands of Americans. These protocols are literally a matter of life and death, and that is why the UAW has been working tirelessly with the companies to ensure that everything that can be done to keep our members and our communities safe."

During a roundtable with community leaders before the tour, Trump acknowledged the disproportionate toll that COVID-19 has had on black communities and certain cities including Detroit. Michigan ranks fourth in the country for deaths — 5,129 as of Thursday. Forty percent of the deaths have been among African Americans. 

Dr. Audrey Gregory, CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, said the health system is now encouraging patients to come back to hospitals and emergency rooms so they are able to treat chronic diseases now that COVID-19 cases are no longer overwhelming Michigan’s hospitals.

The Rev. Darrell Scott of the Urban Revitalization Coalition in the Cleveland area said Trump “has been the most pro-black president in my life. When I say 'pro,' I'm saying 'pro' in the sense of proactive.”

Even as the president stressed the need for Americans to get back to work and credited autoworkers with helping to lead the way, Trump also acknowledged the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 cases in the coming months.

He continually emphasized the need to reopen the country, churches in particular, about which he said he has consulted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "People say (a second wave) is a very distinct possibility. But if there's a fire, we will put it out."

Trump acknowledged the catastrophic flooding in central Michigan, and his White House approved a federal disaster emergency on Thursday as he toured the plant. 

Roughly 11,000 people evacuated this week as two dams, Edenville and Sanford, failed and flash flood emergencies were in effect for the entire stretch of the Tittabawassee River in Midland County.

When leaving the White House earlier Thursday, Trump said his staff has been monitoring the flood reports and noted he had spoken to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

"We have our people from the Army Corps of Engineers there. We have FEMA there. I spoke with the governor, Governor Whitmer, yesterday, and we have a very good understanding," he said.

"But we’ve moved our best people into Michigan and our most talented engineers, designers, the people from the Army Corps of Engineers.  And they do these things better than probably anyone — anyone in the world."

Trump began his meeting with African American leaders by reading a statement about the flooding, suggesting “perhaps there was a mistake made somewhere along the line,” deviating from his script. He added that there’s “nobody better” than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fix it.

The roundtable participants included state Rep. Karen Whitsett, who was censured by fellow Detroit Democrats after she credited Trump’s touting of an anti-malarial drug with helping her beat COVID-19.

Also in the bunch were Detroit native and HUD Secretary Ben Carson; Republican Senate candidate and businessman John James of James Group International; small business owner Alphonso Wallace; and Robin Barnes of Latitude Luxury Real Estate, according to the White House.

Trump praised James, who is challenging incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, saying: “If you do come to Washington, you have my ear. The gentleman you’re opposing, nobody has heard of him."

Peters said James had "turned a taxpayer-funded event into a campaign stop."

"I hope he at least took the time to tell the president he's wrong to threaten to withhold funds from Michigan," Peters tweeted. "Those of us working to help our great state recover know, we can't afford political games right now."

Local African American Democrat officials in a statement criticized James for participating in the event.

"The African American community in Detroit has been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is incredibly disappointing to see John James participate in what is nothing more than a political photo-op with Trump," said Jonathan Kinloch and Rick Blocker, chairmen, respectively, of the 13th and 14th Congressional District Democratic Party organizations.

mburke@detroitnews.com

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

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