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Whitmer vs. Trump: COVID-19 response becomes political fight in election year

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been corrected to say President Donald Trump referred to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as “the woman from Michigan.”

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an election-year spat between President Donald Trump and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, with him dubbing her “half" Whitmer and both trading barbs over the government response to Michigan’s outbreak.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

The tensions deescalated this week after the pair spoke by phone Tuesday about getting badly needed medical suppliesand resources to health care workers in the hard-hit state, where confirmed cases topped 9,300 Wednesday and 337 have died.

But the fight has highlighted the role Michigan will play as a swing state in the November election — where the Republican president must tread carefully in handling the popular Democratic governor — and the spotlight on the state with the fourth most COVID-19 cases in the nation.

Republican officials across the state say they want to see Whitmer succeed in managing the coronavirus outbreak, while accusing her of trying to score political points and auditioning to be the running mate of former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential front-runner.

Biden, fanning those flames, confirmed Tuesday that Whitmer is on his shortlist for a vice presidential pick. 

“There’s been a lot of political rhetoric between the governor and the president, and I think that’s unfortunate,” said Laura Cox, head of the Michigan Republican Party.

“She’s made a lot of national TV appearances and continues to snipe at President Trump at a time when we need to come together and fight this virus. That’s very frustrating to folks.”

She was back on the air Wednesday night, first on MSNBC, saying there remains a lack adequate virus testing that will help gauge the problem in the state. Then, later on CNN, she called for the federal government to use a national approach in supply distribution.

She told CNN the patchwork of policies would prolong the crisis.

"This is going to go on longer than it needs to and more lives are going to be lost," she said.

Whitmer's allies attacked Trump as misogynistic and childish after he referred to her as "the woman from Michigan" — which Whitmer supporter Amanda Burden of Farmington Hills is plastering on T-shirts. He's also complained that "all she does is sit there and blame the federal government." 

Whitmer responded to Trump on Twitter: "I've asked repeatedly and respectfully for help. We need it. No more political attacks, just PPEs, ventilators, N95 masks, test kits. You said you stand with Michigan — prove it."

Amanda Burden poses with a t-shirt she created at her Farmington Hills home. Burden created the shirts in response to President Donald Trump's comments about Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, referring to her as "That woman from Michigan".

Democrats are defending her confrontational and combative approach amid the Trump administration's initially slow response to the pandemic, which has claimed more than 3,600 lives nationally. 

"Gov. Whitmer has shown true leadership and resolve, standing up to this president's erratic response while leading Michigan through a once-in-a-generation crisis," said Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democrats.

"It’s important for all of us to be holding this administration responsible for its response to this pandemic," she added. "That's what the governor is doing."

Analyst Larry Sabato suggested Trump's public criticism of Whitmer could hurt him in Michigan, which he won by a fraction of a percentage point in 2016.

"Michigan is not just a swing state but holds a big packet of electoral votes that Trump will need again in November. He barely won it the first time," said Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

"Whitmer won by a wide margin and is popular. Politically, Trump’s attack on her makes no sense whatsoever. It’s self-defeating."

President Donald Trump stands as others speak about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday, March 30, 2020, in Washington.

Cooler heads prevail

Trump shifted his approach this week, saying "Michigan's been taken care of" in terms of additional resources. "A very important state," he added. 

"I just spoke with the governor of Michigan. We had a great conversation," he said Tuesday, later noting that Detroit is "having a lot of hard time right now."

Whitmer also dialed down her tone, stressing unity and saying she doesn’t have the energy for a fight with the White House.

She emphasized how well she has worked with Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is building a field hospital in Detroit's TCF Center.

“There's no such thing as partisanship right now. I mean, the enemy is COVID-19. We are not one another's enemy,” she said Monday on CNN.

"The governor is focused on serving the 10 million residents that are relying on her leadership and will not be distracted by anything else," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in a statement. 

"COVID-19 is growing at an increasingly fast rate here in Michigan. The governor is committed to protecting the public health and safety of Michiganders, and that includes having a good relationship with the federal government."

Michigan received three allotments from the U.S. stockpile of emergency medical supplies in March based on its population, and got 400 ventilators on Tuesday to be distributed to hospitals on the front lines of the pandemic. 

The arrival of supplies over the weekend followed a flurry of national appearances on network and cable TV last week during which Whitmer slammed the feds' lack of a national strategy or preparedness.

"She’s doing exactly what a governor’s supposed to do," said Sabato, noting her message has been similar to other governors who are desperate for aid.

"She can’t help it if she’s doing a good job of briefing and passing out facts rather than misrepresentations, in contrast to Trump."

Rhetoric meets reality

Whitmer is known to relish a political fight. But just over a year into her first term, she's getting a crash course in navigating the politics of Trump,who is hypersensitive to criticism, quick with his Twitter zings and paying close attention to coverage of his handling of the crisis.

Lansing-based GOP consultant John Sellek said the sheer number of TV interviews that Whitmer has done "naturally" fueled speculation that politics is involved.

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, Friday, March 27, 2020, in Washington.

"The governor’s team has to know that. They may have felt they needed to take their need for supplies national to try to get attention, but the way in which she's gone about it has created controversy," said Sellek, who managed the 2018 gubernatorial campaign of Whitmer's Republican opponent, Bill Schuette.

"I think even she recognized it was becoming a distraction from doing her job because, the way it was being covered, everything was about her versus the president, instead of her fighting for Michigan."

GOP officials jumped on Whitmer for delaying the state's application for a major disaster declaration to FEMA and not putting in official requests for stockpile supplies earlier.

"My thing is let’s not be political," Cox said "You’re the governor. You know specifically what your state needs before the federal government tells you what you need. And follow the rules and procedures to request support from the federal government."

Barnes said Whitmer is going on TV so much to share information with the public in a moment "when we’re all sitting in our homes watching television."

Also, "this is how you get to this president — how you get him to respond and to get what you need, by going where you know he’ll be, which is on television," Barnes said.

Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden contacted Whitmer's office about some of her assertions in press interviews, for instance complaining about needing more N95 masks when her aides knew more were en route to Michigan from the stockpile. 

"The twisting of the story to get political gain makes it a lot harder to get things done when I’m trying to figure out what’s real and not," Mitchell said. 

He said he also reached out to the White House to say the president's attacks on Whitmer weren't helpful. 

"We need to focus simply on addressing the challenge. Let’s focus on how we’re doing that and not focusing on name-calling or who to point the blame to," Mitchell said. 

In a WWJ-AM (950) interview Friday, Whitmer implied the federal government was telling suppliers not to send critical supplies to Michigan, prompting alarm among members of Congress and others.    

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said his office reached out to the White House after the report asking why the state would have been treated differently. Huizenga said he was assured it wasn't. 

Whitmer sought to clarify in Monday's press briefing that she was referring to supply orders having "been delayed or have been diverted to the federal government," she said.

"The rhetoric wasn’t necessarily matching up with the reality," Huizenga said. "No single state was totally ready for this. The federal government was not ready for this."

But Huizenga didn’t defend Trump's attacks on Whitmer, saying "it's not helpful" to use a pandemic as a political football. 

"Whether it’s the governor going after the president or the president going after the governor, everyone needs to dial it back," he said. 

"As we all know, with the president, his New York/New Jersey moxie does not allow him to go unchallenged when accusations are made or things like that." 

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Monday, March 9, 2020. He handily won Michigan's primary over Bernie Sanders on Tuesday.

Biden weighs in

Biden's campaign stepped up to praise Whitmer's performance, calling her a "tenacious fighter" for Michigan and accusing Trump of a "dangerous abdication of leadership." 

MSNBC’s Brian Williams this week asked Biden whether any of the politicians at the front lines of the coronavirus crisis had made his shortlist for running mates, and Biden replied that Whitmer “made the list in my mind two months ago." 

Whitmer, who serves as a national co-chair of Biden's campaign, has said she wants him to choose a female running mate but "it's not going to be me." 

Sellek warned selecting a governor as running mate at this stage would be politically risky.

"Governors are positioned on the front lines of this battle, so the idea that a governor could suddenly say, 'I know we are facing serious business right now, but I'm going to head out and run for national office'?" Sellek said. "That would be a problem for them and their home state."

It could also make Biden look irresponsible if he took a governor away from her state and sent her out on TV to attack the president every night, Sellek said. 

"That doesn't mean I don't think it'll happen," he added.

mburke@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.