Whitmer: Trump 'biggest threat to American people' on COVID-19

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday attacked President Donald Trump for reportedly downplaying the coronavirus in his comments to the American people ahead of the March outbreak across the United States.

In Bob Woodward’s upcoming book on Trump that is titled “Rage,” the president is quoted in February as saying the virus was highly contagious and “deadly stuff” at a time he was publicly dismissing it as no worse than the flu. Woodward, the celebrated Washington Post journalist and best-selling author, spoke with Trump more than a dozen times for his book, according to the Associated Press.

At a Thursday press conference, the Democratic governor said she had long believed the Republican administration to be "reckless and not particularly well-informed" about the virus.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, left, speaks as Chief Medical Executive and MDHHS Chief Deputy for Health Dr. Joneigh Khaldun listens during a press conference, Tuesday, August 25, 2020.

"But it’s a whole other thing to be reckless or ignorant than to be deceptive and to have American lives lost because of it," Whitmer said. "They knew. They didn't tell us.

"I think the biggest enemy of the state right now is the misinformation that's coming out of the head of state. And the biggest threat to the American people is the American president right now," she said.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden made a similar attack on Trump during a Wednesday campaign event in Warren that the governor attended, calling it "a life and death betrayal of the American people." Whitmer is a national co-chair of Biden's campaign and was considered a finalist to be his vice presidential running mate. 

Trump on Wednesday called Woodward’s book a "political hit job."

"It's just another political hit job ... I gave him some quotes," the president said.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Wednesday that Trump took COVID-19 seriously from the start. 

Whitmer called the news of Trump's actions "devastating" and expressed concern about Trump's Thursday rally in Freeland. 

"If the rallies are like those he's held in recent days in other states, there will be lots of people close together without masks on, projecting their voices," she said. "I'm concerned about it. And this is not a partisan observation."

The Michigan Republican Party pushed back on Whitmer's comments, arguing the governor was attempting to make Trump the scapegoat for her own failures in addressing the pandemic in Michigan. 

"The fact of the matter is President Trump moved swiftly to ban travel from China and formed a COVID task force in January," party Chairwoman Laura Cox said Thursday. "Meanwhile, her handling of the state's nursing homes cost thousands of lives, and her failure to request FEMA aid set our state back significantly. If Whitmer is looking for a threat to the jobs and safety of Michiganders, she needs to only look in the mirror.”   

More than 2,140 Michigan nursing home residents and staff (2,122 residents and 21 staff) have died from COVID-19 or about 33% of the 6,552 deaths through Wednesday. 

Thursday marked the six month anniversary of when Michigan confirmed its first cases of COVID-19. The state has since confirmed more than 108,590 cases.

To control the spread, the governor has issued more than 170 executive orders but her authority is being challenged at the Michigan Supreme Court and through a petition initiative seeking to repeal a 1945 law under which she is issuing the orders. 

Woodward is being criticized for waiting seven months to reveal Trump's early concerns about the severity of the virus, but he defended himself by telling The Associated Press on Wednesday that he needed time to be sure that Trump’s private comments from February were accurate.

On Wednesday, Whitmer said the state is still in the "relatively early phases" of the pandemic. 

"This remains a novel virus," she said. "We're learning an incredible amount about COVID-19 every day, every week."

Trump this week rejected Whitmer’s request not to cut funding for the Michigan National Guard, which is helping with the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump over the summer extended the deployment of National Guard members through year's end but said most states would have to start picking up 25% of the cost starting in August.

At least five states were exempted from the cost-sharing: Texas, Florida, Arizona, Connecticut and California.

Whitmer on Thursday urged Trump to reconsider, saying the “blatantly partisan cuts” are dangerous and could cost American lives. 

“It's irresponsible and irrational to fully fund National Guard activities in some states but not others. We need the president to step up and do the right thing for Michigan families, our front-line workers, and our economy,” Whitmer said in a statement. 

“I once again implore President Trump to reconsider his decision and fully fund the Michigan National Guard under Title 32, just like he has in five other states, so our Guardsmen and women can continue to protect us from this deadly virus.”   

Last month, 13 bipartisan members of Congress from Michigan urged the president to reconsider the decision.

The Michigan National Guard has aided the state in performing testing for COVID-19; distributing personal protective equipment; food and medical supplies; disinfecting public spaces; and supporting public safety when needed.