Whitmer seeks broader authority to deploy National Guard for crisis response

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday formally requested authority from President Donald Trump to expand use of the National Guard in Michigan by calling up members to aid in the humanitarian response to the coronavirus outbreak on the federal dime. 

In a Thursday interview, Whitmer stressed that the National Guard would serve a supporting, humanitarian role and would not be involved in law enforcement or policing. 

The Michigan Army National Guard gathers and loads personal protective gear, such as gloves, gowns and face shields in a mid-Michigan warehouse after being called up Wednesday (March 18, 2020) by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

"These are incredibly talented and trained people that we are fortunate to have that we can benefit from — all of us," Whitmer said. 

"We’d be leveraging the guard’s full capabilities to support our state efforts and able to make use of all the federal logistics systems and all the resources and equipment available at the federal level, which I think is incredibly helpful and important."

Whitmer can call up the guard now, but the state must assume all the costs, such as when she activated the Army National Guard to assist Wednesday in assembling and loading personal protective gear to be delivered to local public health departments. 

The Title 32 authority she's seeking would grant Whitmer more operational control and put the National Guard members into the federal pay and benefits system, ensuring they receive timely pay through the Pentagon and open up more federal benefits, experts say. The Pentagon would be reimbursed the cost by federal disaster relief funds.

In a letter to Trump, Whitmer requested the "full use and force" of Michigan's National Guard for up to 180 days, saying it would help run mobile screening facilities, distribute food and medical supplies, ensure resiliency of supply lines, disinfect public spaces and support public safety when required.

“This is really about being able to assist our state efforts that are going on right now and are critically important,” Whitmer said. “It’s a power that’s unique and certainly one that all of my gubernatorial colleagues across the country have asked for.”

Michigan lawmakers are pushing for Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to act quickly to grant Whitmer's request. 

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Holly Democrat and former top defense official during the Obama administration, said the Title 32 request ensures that guard members know they could be called on if needed in support of the disaster response.

She sent a letter to Trump this week in support of the request that was signed by 13 bipartisan members of the Michigan delegation. 

"This is a standard part of prudent planning when a governor feels like there’s a problem on their hands. We know the more aggressive action we take earlier on on the medical side is important," said Slotkin, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

"I’m in strong support of her taking the prudent measures to put our National Guard members in place where they can do basic preparations if they need to be more engaged in logistics, transportation."  

U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, said the National Guard could be useful in a variety of ways, such as moving around supplies, helping to set up remote testing sites or labs and a variety of logistical needs "that just drain the resources from the hospitals."

"That makes a great deal of sense. I don’t think people should view calling up the National Guard as anything more than putting more hands on the issue and not a precursor to more extensive action," said Mitchell, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

"People online are claiming 'martial law' being declared, and that’s frankly ridiculous."

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, wrote Thursday to Trump in support of the Title 32 request.

"We have to treat this as if we're in a wartime footing," said Peters, who sits on both Senate Homeland Security and Armed Services panels. 

"We have assets in the U.S. military now to deal with these kinds of crises. They have a mobile hospitals and tents and equipment to expand capacity in the hospitals. We should be starting to mobilize all of those assets and get them ready to move."

The National Governors Association sent a similar Title 32 request to Esper on behalf of its membership Thursday, asking that he mobilize the National Guard to federal status. 

"We believe that this authority, in support of the current National Emergency, will ensure more streamlined and operationally effective and responsive operations to support our communities and citizens in combatting COVID-19," the letter reads

The most efficient thing to do would be to grant the NGA's response, since other governors like New York's Andrew Cuomo are making the same request individually, said William C. Banks, a professor at Syracuse University specializing in national security law. 

"It’s a tremendous fiscal advantage for the state. It also enables the National Guard to do whatever they’re trained to do, including enforcing local laws if need be," Banks said. 

The National Guard was deployed in states under Title 32 authority after 9/11 and in response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Banks said. 

Lawmakers including Peters, Slotkin and U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, have urged Trump to call on industry to start producing badly needed supplies, such as masks, gowns and swabs, using his authority under the Defense Production Act. 

But Trump said Thursday on Twitter he'd only invoke the statute "should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future."

"The governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work, and they are doing a lot of this work. The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we're not a shipping clerk," Trump told reporters at the White House. 

"We'll help out, and we'll help out wherever we can. ... But this is really for the local governments, governors and people within the state."  

​Slotkin, who was acting assistant defense secretary during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, said she would like to see a more comprehensive approach to how the Department of Defense is reacting to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Esper said this week he approved the transfer of 5 million respirator masks and 2,000 ventilators from the department's strategic reserve, and put its two medical ships on alert in case they are needed them to sail to New York or California.  

"My point is these things are positive, but what I want to see is a comprehensive plan of not just announcements but action, and I want us to be thoughtful and strategic," Slotkin said.

"Not just what can we approve today or is necessary in this moment but think through the course of this virus."