In swing through Michigan, Trump to find records — unemployment, floods and 5,000 COVID deaths

President Donald Trump is set to arrive Thursday in Michigan, a state beset by the historic challenges of record 22.7% unemployment, a 500-year flood in the middle of the state and the loss of more than 5,000 residents to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The visit to Ford Motor Co.'s Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti, where the automaker builds ventilators for the national stockpile, comes as the president is sharply criticizing a proposal by Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. And state Attorney General Dana Nessel is calling on the president to break with his practice and wear a protective mask inside the Ford plant.

The plant visit is one stop on a presidential tour touting efforts by American manufacturers to produce medical supplies and personal protective equipment during the pandemic. It comes amid a campaign season upended by candidates' inability to host such traditional events as rallies — and as Trump seeks to shore up support in Michigan, a battleground state considered vitally important to his reelection chances.

"He is presumably focusing on this state because it's an important swing state," said Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. "It's hard to see how he can put together 270 (Electoral College) votes without the state of Michigan."

In advance of his trip, Trump took to Twitter to slam Benson's plan to distribute ballot applications. And he tweeted Wednesday that he is "closely monitoring the flooding in Central Michigan" and has "sent our best Military & @FEMA Teams, already there." 

The digital offer of support came after Trump tweeted out attacks on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for keeping in place stay-at-home orders for most of the state in an attempt to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus pandemic. 

"My team is closely monitoring the flooding in Central Michigan – Stay SAFE and listen to local officials. Our brave First Responders are once again stepping up to serve their fellow citizens, THANK YOU!" Trump tweeted. 

"We have sent our best Military & @FEMA  Teams, already there. Governor must now 'set you free' to help. Will be with you soon!" 

President Donald Trump

In a press conference earlier Wednesday where she noted the stunning confluence of a 500-year flood amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, Whitmer announced plans to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency formally for aid to address the historic flooding in Midland.

The city of Midland is facing the rising waters of a historic flood after two dams breached in mid-Michigan on Tuesday. Edenville and Sanford dams failed, and flash flood emergencies were in effect for the entire stretch of the Tittabawassee River in Midland County. Evacuations were ordered after the catastrophic dam failures due to heavy rains sparked flooding, according to the National Weather Service. Whitmer also has declared a state emergency. 

Later Wednesday, according to a White House press pool report, Trump said he had spoken with Whitmer about the flooding in Midland: "I will be going to Michigan at the appropriate time. They have a big problem with the dams breaking. So that is a big big problem.

"And so we've sent the FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers out, and they're very good at dams, they're probably better at that anybody you can think of, right? The Army Corps of Engineers have done a fantastic job."

Trump, meanwhile, is scheduled to visit the Rawsonville plant, despite an executive order signed by Whitmer on Monday banning nonessential visits to manufacturing facilities in Michigan in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Ford has said it plans to ask Trump to wear a mask, despite the fact that he has been reluctant to appear in public with his face covered since he began resuming official travel. When asked earlier in the week whether he would follow Ford's policy, Trump said: "We'll see."

In response, the state's attorney general, Nessel, released an open letter asking Trump to comply: "Anyone who has potentially been recently exposed, including the President of the United States, has not only a legal responsibility, but also a social and moral responsibility, to take reasonable precautions to prevent further spread of the virus."

A spokesman for Whitmer said the governor is not planning to block the president's visit, even though refusing to wear a mask would appear to contradict her order. Whitmer's executive order directs manufacturing facilities to "suspend all non-essential in-person visits, including tours." 

In a statement, the United Auto Workers said it is "proud to welcome" Trump to the Rawsonville plant to see firsthand UAW members' efforts to build life-saving ventilators and PPE, as well as the health and safety protocols the UAW helped develop:

"At the Rawsonville plant, and at plants all over the nation, our members have been working long hours to get these facilities ready for the restart of our economy and these first days back to work. We are pleased and proud that President Trump has chosen to visit the Ford facility tomorrow to see firsthand the good works of our brothers and sisters.”

Trump and Whitmer have disagreed in the past months about the government's handling of COVID-19, which has been linked to 5,060 deaths in Michigan as of Wednesday. And Whitmer, a Democrat under consideration to be the running mate of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, has criticized the federal government's response to the virus.

A Republican, Trump tweeted on May 1 that Whitmer should "give a little" and "put out the fire" after hundreds of protesters rallied at Michigan's Capitol against restrictions imposed by the governor. The president has been sharply critical of the governor, referring to her dismissively as "the woman in Michigan." 

Earlier on Wednesday, Trump signaled his opposition to Benson's announcement that absentee ballot application forms would be mailed to every Michigan voter. 

"Breaking: Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election," the president wrote in a tweet that was later corrected. "This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!" 

Benson responded quickly: "Hi! I also have a name, it’s Jocelyn Benson. And we sent applications, not ballots. Just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia." 

The president last visited the state — which he won in 2016 by just 10,704 votes — on Jan. 30 when he spoke at a Dana Inc. plant in Warren. In Ypsilanti, Trump is expected deliver remarks after participating in a bipartisan roundtable discussion with Detroit community leaders about efforts to assist minority communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Data shows COVID-19 has disproportionately infected and killed black residents.

And Trump is expected to touch on a familiar theme of his campaigns and presidency: the need to revive American manufacturing, especially in industries critical to safeguarding national security and public health.

"Instead of having to rely on China for ventilators for ventilators, we rely on Rawsonville in Michigan," said Peter Navarro, director of the White House's office of trade and manufacturing policy. "So the production that Ford will be generating will not just help fill our strategic national stockpile, but it also will be an export for America. We have become what President Trump calls the king of ventilators." 

But to some political observers, the purpose of the trip is not so much a celebration as an attempt to distract from current events that could derail Trump's reelection bid.

"That's what pretty much what any candidate would do, because the events on the ground are terrible for the Republican Party," said Hutchings. "We have the worst economy since the Great Depression, and 90,000-plus Americans have died because of what I think is widely recognized as a faulty response to the pandemic."