Whitmer calls trip criticism 'maddening' as Republicans intensify attacks

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing The Michigan Republican Party and a handful of GOP legislators accused Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of hypocrisy Tuesday as the Democratic leader labeled their criticism of a trip to visit her father "maddening."

At a press conference in Lansing, Republicans called on Whitmer to release more details of her out-of-state trip to see her dad during the ongoing pandemic.

"We do not take issue with folks that want to visit their parents," party spokesman Ted Goodman said. "What we take issue with is she's setting separate rules for the people of Michigan, and she's not adhering to them herself."

A day earlier, Whitmer's spokesman Bobby Leddy confirmed that at some point, more than a month ago, the governor traveled to visit her father who is battling an unidentified chronic illness. Her father, Richard Whitmer, has a property in Florida, but Leddy wouldn't say what state she traveled to or when the trip specifically occurred.

About two hours after the GOP event, Whitmer participated in an interview with the Washington Post. She described her father as a "very private person" and said her trip lasted two days and she "wasn’t out partying in Miami."

"It was certainly not spring break," she said. "I was doing both my job as governor from a distance and being that of a daughter who was helping out a parent who needed a little help.”

"It’s maddening," she said of the criticism, adding, "A lot of these same people would accuse me of not having family values if I didn't show up when a family member needed some help."

Still, the revelation has spurred criticism from some Republicans who have highlighted warnings against out-of-state travel from Whitmer's administration and policies that limited residents' ability to visit face to face with family members in nursing homes.

On Monday, Leddy said the governor followed public health guidance during her three trips this year: one to visit her father, one for President Joe Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration and one to visit National Guard troops in Washington, D.C., in early March.

"All trips were very brief, two full days or less, closely followed public health guidelines and were made when Michigan's daily positivity rate was in the low single digits," Leddy said.

Michigan's COVID-19 infection rates have been increasing for eight weeks. The state, which is  considered a hot spot for the virus, has led the nation in new cases per population for nearly three weeks. 

The positivity rate, the percentage of tests bringing positive results, was 4% the first week of March and 5% the second week of March. Last week, the rate was 14%.

Michigan Republicans, who began sharing an image titled "Where's Whitmer?" in the theme of "Where's Waldo?," want Whitmer's administration to release more details about her trip to see her dad, including the dates she was out of state, where she traveled to, the flight manifest and whether public resources were involved.

Michigan Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, speaking at party headquarters in Lansing earlier this month.

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, said Whitmer got to see her father while other people in Michigan haven't gotten to see their parents to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"This is about hypocrisy," Runestad said. "The whole thing is not about her visiting her father. It is about the hypocrisy."

On March 2, nearly a year into the pandemic, the state lifted several restrictions on nursing home visitation policies, marking the first time since early in the pandemic that nursing homes statewide could allow visitors. The March 2 policies allowed family members who tested negative for COVID-19 immediately to visit relatives in a nursing home as long as the facility had not had a new COVID-19 case in the last 14 days, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Visitations prior to the March 2 order were allowed depending on whether metrics indicated a given county was at low risk for the virus.

On a Sunday appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," Whitmer talked about the risks of traveling from Michigan to Florida and back.

“Michigan and Florida are not next to each other," she said. "But this is the time of the year that snowbirds come home from Florida, where people are going on spring break, and all of these things can contribute to spread. That's why we're imploring people to take this seriously, mask up, get tested.”

On April 2, Whitmer's administration issued a press release that encouraged "spring break travelers" to get tested for the virus. The release linked to a page of "travel tips" that encouraged people to "delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19."

Yet, Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, was in Alabama this month on a family trip. And during the week of April 9, one of Whitmer's top aides, Chief Operating Officer Tricia Foster, posted photos of herself traveling with her family to Florida, where they vacationed in Siesta Key south of Tampa.

State Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, said Whitmer has "evaded" questions about her personal travel schedule.

"It's wrong," Hall said. "We need to ... as elected leaders to hold ourselves to the same standard that we're telling the others to do. So if you're telling people not to travel, then you shouldn't travel yourself.

"Because many, many of our constituents across the state made those sacrifices for their family."

Hall said he hadn't traveled out of the state during the pandemic.

The Michigan Democratic Party slammed the GOP press conference. Democratic spokeswoman Rodericka Applewhaite called the event a continuation of "unhinged games" during a pandemic.

"Today they reached a new low in attempting to politicize tending to an elderly parent," she said.