Trump, Whitmer clash over pressing needs in coronavirus response

Tensions over the coronavirus response spilled over Tuesday as President Donald Trump targeted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over criticisms she made Monday and Tuesday on cable television about the White House's handling of the public health crisis.  

The clash followed days of mounting alarm at the rate of spread in Michigan and elsewhere in the nation. The state's virus caseload has grown from two cases to 65 cases in a week, prompting frustration from Michigan health officials about a lack of testing kits and emergency equipment to treat infected patients. 

The Michigan Legislature worked late into Tuesday evening to reach a deal on supplemental funding for the health crisis, while Michigan's congressional delegation searched for ways to help with the fallout of the virus.

"I can’t predict necessarily what the path forward looks like," House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, told reporters Tuesday. "What I can tell you is that this chamber will be working with both administrations to ensure the people receive the services they need.”

In another appearance on MSNBC late Tuesday, when asked about the attacks by Trump, Whitmer said: "I can’t get distracted by that. … It’s ironic that my point I was making as I was being attacked was that they’re not serious. They’re watching TV and attacking via Twitter.

"That’s not going to help anything. The only thing that helps us manage a crisis is having clear and swift information, having personal protection equipment, ensuring that we’ve got the tests that we need and the resources that (are) necessary."

The governor added that the state has 10 million residents "who are counting on me to be able to deliver."

"And I need a federal government that’s got our back and is helping us do that," she said.

In interviews with MSNBC and CNN on Monday and earlier Tuesday, Whitmer also emphasized the state’s need for additional testing kits, ventilators, personal protection equipment and respirators. 

The Democratic governor chided Trump during those appearances to “step up” the coronavirus response, prohibit non-essential travel and declare a national disaster to free up more federal funding. She called the White House's response to the issue “mind-boggling.”

"We've got businesses here in Michigan that are redoubling their efforts to make sure that we're able to access all of the kinds of equipment that we need, but we need the federal government to work," Whitmer told MSNBC earlier Tuesday. "We need respirators and ventilators and personal protection equipment. We need more test kits and the resources to process those test kits in a quick expedited manner.”

Trump fired back minutes later on Twitter, arguing that he worked “very well with the governors and state officials.”

“Failing Michigan Governor must work harder and be much more proactive. We are pushing her to get the job done. I stand with Michigan!” the Republican president said in a tweet.

Whitmer told reporters that she wasn’t “spoiling for a fight” with the White House and hoped to receive federal help in Michigan in the coming days. 

She also defended her record in Michigan and noted that, in the week since Michigan confirmed its first coronavirus cases, she had declared a state of emergency, closed all K-12 schools, limited assemblies to 50 people and closed all bars, restaurants, fitness centers and movie theaters.

 “... Attack tweets won’t solve this crisis," she wrote on Twitter. "But swift and clear guidance, tests, personal protective equipment and resources would."

The state has expressed concern that it had too few testing kits to adequately gauge the spread of the virus in Michigan. On Monday, state health officials indicated they had a little more than an eight-day supply of COVID-19 testing materials.

During her Tuesday night MSNBC interview, Whitmer said she had been talking with other governors and noted "we don't have enough tests and we don’t have resources to make sure that we are able to process the tests as quickly as we need to.

"And because of that, we are not confident that we have a real handle on how many people are actually carrying the coronavirus in Michigan, and where they are and how we can track down the genesis. And that is dangerous."

The governor told host Rachel Maddow that following talks with other governors she was open to considering asking residents to postpone elective surgeries.

"We know that to flatten the curve we have to be aggressive," she said. "And anyone who doesn’t need to be in a health care facility should probably not be because we want to mitigate this community spread."

Trump defends record

A reporter asked Trump on Tuesday about the example he was setting by lashing out at Whitmer after her first appearance on MSNBC.

“I only do that when I have to respond. I watched her on television. She said something that was false, and therefore I did do that, and I will continue to do that," the Republican president said.

"If they’re not going to play fair — they have the media on their side. I don’t. I just have me. There’s going to be nobody better than Trump in terms of bipartisanship.” 

The White House pointed Tuesday to its nationwide ramping up of testing by relaxing Food and Drug Administration rules. The Metro Detroit hospital systems of Henry Ford Health and Beaumont Health said Tuesday they had developed in-house tests to help expand access to health screening.

Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System officials said they're able to test up to 100 patients per day with their new test. They plan to expand to 200 per day by next week and as many a 1,000 per day within weeks. 

Beaumont Health system officials said they started Tuesday to process a "limited number" of tests developed in-house. Both health systems are rolling out curbside coronavirus testing.

Critics have pointed to reported comments by Trump that the nation's governors should try getting scarce ventilators themselves. But the president's campaign has argued that press reports about his remarks to Whitmer and other governors lacked context.

Trump's full quote on the conference call to governors was: “We will be backing you but try getting it yourselves. Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself.”

Lawmakers weigh in

While the Michigan Legislature deliberated Tuesday over state supplemental spending on school aid and potential coronavirus response funding, Chatfield walked a fine line between applauding Trump’s work so far and advocating for more collaboration between the president and Whitmer. 

“We are relying on your leadership and are partnering closely with @GovWhitmer today to authorize it, which will put boots on the ground & increase access to care,” Chatfield said in a tweet. 

The Michigan Republican Party was less diplomatic, defending Trump’s response to the pandemic by noting his Friday declaration of a national emergency, public-private partnerships to expand testing and tax credits for eligible businesses. 

“The governor does the people of Michigan a great disservice going on national television, and playing partisan politics during a time of crisis,” Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox said in a statement, accusing the governor of posturing to secure a spot as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's running mate. Whitmer has denied she's interested in the position.

Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday came to the governor's defense, with U.S. Rep. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township calling Trump's attack "downright Orwellian” and Whitmer’s actions in Michigan “steady, transparent, collaborative, brave and proactive." Rep. Dan Killdee of Flint Township called Trump's attack "childish."

"Look up leadership in the dictionary and you’ll see a picture of Governor Whitmer," Rep. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn said in a tweet. "She’s working with me 24 hours a day to keep Michiganders safe and provide resources during this time."

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters put out a proposal Tuesday detailing ways to ramp up testing and lab capacity for processing. His suggestions include the FDA expediting approvals or providing waivers for laboratories that are ready to provide testing. 

Federal health officials should also support the use of high-capacity, automatic testing platforms to increase the speed and volume of testing, Peters said. The president should also invoke Defense Production Act to boost test production and ensure a sufficient supply of critical materials and testing kits, he said.

“Testing is still not happening at the speed that it needs to happen. Certainly, private lab tests are ramping up their capabilities, which is good, but it needs to happen a whole lot quicker,” Peters said.

He noted that South Korea — with 15% of America's population — is testing roughly 140,000 people a week, allowing public health officials to find the disease and allocate resources to infected hot spots. If the U.S. had testing capacity similar to South Korea, it would be testing a million people a week, Peters said. Instead, the United States had tested 59,000 people as of Tuesday, according to the White House. 

Peters and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, have both urged their Senate colleagues to immediately pass the House-approved legislative aid package that includes economic relief for Americans including free COVID-19 testing, paid sick leave for workers and food assistance for children and needy families. 

 “I don't know why we are delaying because this thing passed early Saturday morning,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, vowed Tuesday the Senate would not adjourn until the work was done. It would likely include action on Trump's request Tuesday for up to $1 trillion in economic stimulus that would include a large tax cut for wage-earners, $50 billion for the airline industry and $250 billion for small businesses.

“Obviously, we need to act,” McConnell said. “We’re not leaving town until we have constructed and passed another bill.”

But first, he said, the Senate will vote on the House’s $100 billion package of sick pay, emergency food and free testing, putting it back on track for Trump’s signature — despite Republican objections. “Gag, and vote for it anyway,” he advised colleagues.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks and The Associated Press contributed