Trump suggests alleged Whitmer plot ‘maybe’ wasn’t a problem

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — President Donald Trump returned to the battleground of Michigan a week before Election Day, and so did his supporters' chants of "lock her up" about the state's top official, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

In a wide-ranging, hour-long speech at the Capital Region International Airport, the Republican incumbent on Tuesday inaccurately connected surges in COVID-19 cases to increased testing for the virus, contended the auto business was "afraid" of environmentalists and touted his administration's trade policies.

Trump won the state four years ago by 10,704 votes, or two-tenths of a percentage point. 

At one point Tuesday, the president described the election as a choice between a "Trump boom" and a "Biden lockdown," referring to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You’re already locked down," Trump said as the crowd of thousands of people began chanting "lock her up."

The president then said, "I don’t comment on that," adding if he did, the media would criticize him and claim he led the chant.

The president last visited Michigan 10 days earlier on Oct. 17 for a rally that drew thousands in Muskegon. At one point, the crowd at that event chanted "lock her up," referring to Whitmer, as Trump criticized her restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19.

The Muskegon "lock her up" chant came less than two weeks after authorities revealed an alleged plot to kidnap the Democratic governor, who resides in Lansing.

Whitmer responded to the chant on Twitter: "This is exactly the rhetoric that has put me, my family, and other government officials’ lives in danger while we try to save the lives of our fellow Americans. It needs to stop."

In Lansing on Tuesday, Trump noted that his appointees — the U.S. attorneys for Detroit and Grand Rapids — filed the charges against six of the 14 defendants who are accused in the alleged kidnapping scheme. But the president seemed to question the strength of the cases. 

“It was our people that helped her out with her problem," the president said. "We’ll have to see if it’s a problem, right? People are entitled to say maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn’t.”

The Whitmer campaign immediately sent out a fundraising email that said Trump "just doubled down on his attacks against Gretchen — and we need to respond. Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous to our country and dangerous to our leaders, like Gretchen, who are doing everything they can to keep us safe during these times."

The email from "Team Whitmer" requested a donation "to defend Michigan and return decency to the White House on November 3." The governor is a national co-chair for Biden's campaign. 

Earlier Tuesday, with temperatures in the 30s, light rain falling and COVID-19 cases on the rise in Michigan, the line into the Lansing event appeared to be longer than the lines for the president's last two stops in Michigan. He also visited Freeland on Sept. 10.

Trump mentioned the weather and said he was "just trying to keep up with the tough people of Michigan."

One of them, Jordan Brown of Lansing, said he didn't mind the rain as he entered the outdoor venue for Trump's speech near an airport hangar. Brown contended Biden would "fundamentally change" the country.

"I feel like our freedom is at stake here," Brown said.

In addition to calling on Whitmer to reopen the state's economy, which her administration has largely already done, Trump touted his own efforts to restore the pensions of Delphi Corp.'s salaried retirees more than a decade after their payouts were cut by roughly two-thirds when the former General Motors parts supplier exited bankruptcy under the Obama administration.

“I will never let anyone rip off our great American worker,” Trump said.

Under the Obama administration’s 2009 taxpayer-funded GM bankruptcy, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. cut pension payouts for the salaried retirees. Delphi's unionized hourly workers retained their pensions even as salaried employees were forced to continue the fight at their own expense. 

Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016, his smallest margin of victory nationally. Both he and Biden are targeting the state ahead of Election Day as polling has found the former vice president with a lead.

Biden was leading by 7.7 percentage points over Trump, according to a poll by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV of 600 likely voters in the three days following Thursday's presidential debate in Nashville. The survey had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 points.

But Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican Nation Committee, said Tuesday the race in Michigan is closer than the public polling indicates.

"We're looking at the raw data, the numbers coming in and the votes left outstanding," she said. "It's going to be a turnout race."

McDaniel, a Michigan resident, said Trump had "delivered" for voters in the state. She highlighted tax cuts imposed by the president and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, his replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

During his Tuesday speech, Trump called NAFTA a "nightmare."

"Wait till you see what happens," Trump said about the USCMA. "It’s just kicking in right now, and one of the biggest beneficiaries will be a state named Michigan."

He also claimed auto industry leaders were afraid of "environmentalists" as he touted his administration's effort to roll back tougher gas-mileage rules enacted by former President Barack Obama's administration. 

McDaniel and Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, spoke ahead of Trump on Tuesday. Rock musician Ted Nugent also performed the national anthem for the crowd.

Brody Barber, 10, of Pinckney, wears Trump hair, which is part of his Halloween costume, before U.S. President Donald Trump addresses supporters during his Make America Great Again Victory Rally at AV Flight at the Capital Region International Airport in Lansing, MI, Tuesday, October 27, 2020.

James, a businessman from Farmington Hills who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2018, said Republicans had no one to blame but themselves for losing the gubernatorial race and other statewide contests in 2018. Democrats had presidential-year-level turnout in that mid-term election, he said.

"The time is now," James told the crowd. "We have seven days. We need to show up. Democrats are showing up. You want to talk a big game? You’ve got to show up."

Crowds line up outside the venue before President Donald Trump addresses supporters during his Make America Great Again Victory Rally at AV Flight at the Capital Region International Airport in Lansing, Tuesday, October 27, 2020.

Trump's stop in Lansing on Tuesday came as COVID-19 cases in Michigan, other Midwestern states and parts of the rest of the country are surging upward. Michigan reported its first cases of the virus on March 10, but the state disclosed the most new cases of any week last week at 13,129. It was the second straight record-setting week.

In a Tuesday press briefing, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said Trump was trying to "wish" away the virus. She contended it was "reckless" and "irresponsible" for him to hold a large rally with many people not wearing masks during the pandemic.

"I find it continually shocking to see what he's doing," Stabenow said.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor said Michigan is seeing a second wave of COVID-19, and it needs to be taken seriously.

"Lansing needs a president right now who supports us," said Schor, a Democrat. "We need a president with a plan for COVID response."

But Trump inaccurately said increases in cases are tied to increased testing for the virus. While testing has increased across the country, the rates of positive cases are jumping in some places, including Michigan, as are hospitalizations.

"If I said we are going to cut our testing down in half, they’d go crazy," said Trump of the media, before acknowledging that widespread testing was a good thing.

The president also highlighted his 14-year-old son Barron's recovery from COVID-19, saying he was simply "sniffling."

"Barron recovered in about 12 minutes," Trump said.

He called for schools to offer in-person instruction and states to reopen their economies. While talking about women, he added, "We’re getting your husbands back to work."

Christian Bartolo of Grand Rapids gathered near the Lansing airport entrance on Tuesday with about a dozen protesters touting rainbow flags, Black Lives Matter banners and Biden Harris signs.

“He’s just a president who, in my opinion, has not kept any of the promises he made in the beginning of the 2016 campaign,” Bartolo said of Trump.

The idea the president would come back to Whitmer’s hometown is “disgusting,” said Bartolo, who argued that Trump’s rhetoric had fueled some threats against Whitmer. 

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit Flint on Wednesday. Biden will be in Michigan on Saturday.

Staff Writers Kalea Hall and Beth LeBlanc contributed.