Whitmer tells Trump she wants 'good working relationship'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer waves at supporter during the campaign. The governor-elect is in Washington, D.C., Thursday (Dec. 13).

Washington — In her first trip to Washington as Michigan's governor-elect, Gretchen Whitmer told President Donald Trump she wants to work with his administration.

But the East Lansing Democrat said she also expressed concerns to top officials about how tariffs are hurting the auto and agriculture industries in Michigan. 

"I’m happy to be here and look forward to a good working relationship with your administration," Whitmer told Trump at the start of a White House meeting Thursday with a dozen other newly elected governors.

"Oh, we're going to have it. Thank you very much. Congratulations," Trump replied.

The president welcomed the group as “some really terrific people who will do a wonderful job.” 

“Some of them had very outstanding victories in terms of the percentage of victory and even surprising,” Trump said. “I can pretty much say most of them have become stars, if not all, because you won. Winning is a wonderful thing.”

Whitmer was seated across from Trump, between Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Tennessee Gov.-elect Bill Ross, around a table that included Vice President Mike Pence, advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner and cabinet members.

"I did have a moment when I thought this is really, you know, just kind of a surreal moment. But we got right down to business," Whitmer said. 

During the 45-minute meeting, she said she talked to Trump about infrastructure, and that he pledged to continue his support for upgrading the Soo Locks in the Upper Peninsula.

"I told him I got elected on 'fixing the damn roads,' and he acknowledged how important infrastructure is and said he's really focused on getting an infrastructure bill passed and encouraged all of us to get our congressional delegations to focus on this, as well," Whitmer said afterward on a call with reporters.

"I also expanded to talk about how water is part of infrastructure, as well."

She introduced herself to Trump as being from "the Great Lakes state" and later raised with him the importance of efforts to stop the destructive Asian carp before it reaches the freshwater lakes, she said. 

Other Midwestern governors-elect attending the White House meeting were Democrats Tony Evers of Wisconsin and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois as well as Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio, who also weighed in on the issue, Whitmer said. 

"That was an interesting conversation because I don’t think that President Trump had really had the opportunity to think or learn much about Asian carp before, so we had a good conversation about that," the governor-elect said. 

She did not discuss the recent announced job cuts and plant idlings at General Motors Co. with Trump on Thursday, but Whitmer said she did speak Wednesday to GM CEO Mary Barra and that they plan to meet in early January. 

"I know that they've got some plans for displaced workers that I'm eager to get up to speed on," Whitmer said. 

She met separately with Ross, as well as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue as part of a series of White House meetings. 

"Frankly, I wasn't sure what to expect from this series of meetings, but I found them to be quite productive," Whitmer said. 

"The chance to sit down and have one-on-one conversations with cabinet-level members and department heads was I thought very fruitful, and I'm glad I came."

With Ross, Whitmer talked trade, tariffs and trying to "lure" investments into Michigan. 

"He gave me a couple of suggestions that I thought were pretty interesting that we're going to do a little bit of research on and see if it's something that makes sense concerning an empty plant in Hamtramck," she said. 

With Azar, Whitmer talked about the timeline for a waiver related to Michigan's Medicaid expansion that that covers 680,000 Michiganders with health care. 

"They offered to expedite or be of assistance in the future in terms of other waivers we may need to seek in order to expand our population that is covered," Whitmer said.

She also highlighted remarks from adviser Ivanka Trump about "leveling barriers to work" for women and young families and increasing the child care tax credit. 

"Of course, that's been a part of the campaign and part of what I hope to accomplish, as well, so I think that's an other area that we can find some common ground on," Whitmer said. 

Whitmer said she flew into Washington on Thursday morning and went straight to a meeting with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and then met with the full congressional delegation on Capitol Hill. 

A few of the members she was meeting for the first time, she said. 

The delegation meeting at the U.S. Capitol included most of Michigan's House members, Stabenow and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, plus several staffers. 

"One thing that came out of the meeting was we hope to have regular meetings as a delegation and with her, as well, so we can be on the same page in a bipartisan way, and we can assist the governor in her efforts to deal with a variety of issues in Michigan," Peters said. 

Peters said he specifically raised in the meeting the priority of tackling water contamination by harmful fluorinated compounds known as PFAS chemicals that have been detected in over 30 Michigan communities. 

"She did say she’s concerned about bills moving through the state Legislature right now as part of this whole lame-duck rush to pass bills and how some of the bills will undermine her attempts to deal with the PFAS situation," Peters said.

"That's why I encouraged my colleagues to reach out to any of the state legislators that they know to stress to them how serious the PFAS issue is in Michigan, and that they shouldn't be passing some of the legislation they're passing." 

Peters was referring in part to controversial legislation headed to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's desk that would require state government agencies to present evidence of a "clear and convincing" need when adopting any rule stricter than federal standards.

If it becomes law, the "stricter than federal" rules it would make it more difficult for the state to reduce its current action level for PFAS contaminants from the federal 70 parts per trillion mark — an idea pushed by some legislative Democrats.

Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, described the gathering as an introductory meeting to greet the incoming governor and discuss Michigan priorities that the delegation can work on with Whitmer, such as PFAS and Great Lakes cleanup. 

"The one thing we know as a Michigan delegation is we're better when we work together," Bergman said.

"We encouraged her to and she was already motivated to work with the Great Lakes governors, including the new governors in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio. She is already engaging in that arena. That was a positive sign."

Bergman said he expects that Whitmer will be a proactive partner in working with the delegation but "time will tell."  

The gathering was cut short after 20 minutes because House members got called to vote on legislation, he explained.