President Donald Trump has lashed out at several Democratic governors who are responding to the coronavirus crisis, but his harshest words have been reserved for Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer.
Trump said Thursday he had a “big problem” with the “young, a woman governor” in Michigan, complaining that “all she does is sit there and blame the federal government.” On Friday, he said that he told Vice President Mike Pence, “don’t call the woman in Michigan,” and later referred to her as “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” in a tweet and said she is “way in over her head” and “doesn’t have a clue.”
Those attacks – and her direct response to them – have thrust the first-term governor further into the national spotlight as she manages her state’s efforts to slow the pandemic’s spread, which includes seeking assistance from the Trump administration. Whitmer now finds herself among other Democratic governors, like Washington state’s Jay Inslee and New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who are navigating the deepening public health crisis in their states while also confronting the President’s demand for public praise and appreciation.
Whitmer responded to Trump’s Thursday attacks in a tweet that included a hand-waving emoji, writing, “Hi, my name is Gretchen Whitmer, and that governor is me.”
“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,” she wrote.
Asked on Sunday about the President’s attacks during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” Whitmer said that she doesn’t “have energy to respond to every slight.”
“What I’m trying to do is work well with the federal government,” she said. “We are all stressed because we have people that are dying right now. I need assistance and I need partnership.”
As she put it to CNN’s “New Day” a day later, “there’s no such thing as partisanship right now.”
Whitmer, 48, is popular in Michigan where she won the 2018 governor’s race by 9.5 percentage points. She has emerged as a rising voice within the Democratic Party, delivering the State of the Union response this year, and is widely considered to be on former Vice President Joe Biden’s list of potential running mates (Whitmer has said she will not be the pick).
Prior to becoming governor, Whitmer, a lawyer whose father was the president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and whose mother was an assistant state attorney general, was a long-time member of the Michigan state legislature. She became a member of the House in 2001 and the Senate in 2006, rising to the rank of top Democrat in the chamber before term limits forced her out of the Senate in 2015.
Whitmer defeated Bernie Sanders-backed Abdul El-Sayed in a 2018 gubernatorial primary, and then cruised to victory in the swing state with a campaign focused on government fundamentals – with the eye-catching slogan “fix the damn roads.”
There are political ramifications for Trump making her a target: She is a co-chair of Biden’s presidential campaign and oversees a state that was key to the President’s victory in 2016 and will be a major battleground in 2020. Biden defended Whitmer in a statement on Friday, saying, Trump could “learn a thing or two from Governor Whitmer – speed matters, details matter, and people matter.”
But far more urgent is the reality of the pandemic in the state. Michigan had at least 4,659 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Saturday, with at least 111 dead. The state – and particularly the Detroit area – has emerged in recent days as a coronavirus hot spot.
“The only thing that matters is keeping people alive and then bringing back the economy. That should be sole focus of everyone, and if it’s not, voters will get their say,” said Jim Margolis, Whitmer’s media consultant who made ads for former President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign that weaponized Mitt Romney’s call to let Detroit auto-makers go bankrupt.
What triggered Trump’s verbal assault on Whitmer appears to have been her criticism of the federal government last week week, when she said that “we’re still not getting what we need from the federal government.” Whitmer said the share of protective equipment for doctors and nurses that Michigan had received from the national stockpile was barely enough to cover one shift at one hospital.
On Thursday, Whitmer asked Trump to approve a federal major disaster declaration through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity later that day that he had “to make a decision about that.” Whitmer also offered broader criticism of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I do still believe that we, as a nation, were not as prepared as we should have been. I think the cuts to the CDC, the attack on health care in general and the evisceration of the pandemic offices across the country have put us in a position where we are behind the eight ball,” she said.
Whitmer said in an interview with CNN on Friday that her state is not getting the health and safety equipment needed to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus because contractors are sending their products to the federal government first.
Meanwhile, Michigan Republicans, without directly criticizing Trump, have signaled that Trump’s criticism of Whitmer is ill-timed. Lee Chatfield, the Republican speaker of the Michigan House, tweeted Friday – without addressing his comments to anyone in particular – that people should “stop blaming” Trump and “stop blaming the governor.”
“That goes for everybody,” Chatfield said.
By Saturday morning, it appeared Trump’s outburst at Whitmer wouldn’t impede the federal government’s response to the crisis in Michigan.
Whitmer tweeted she’d “had a good call” with Pence on Saturday morning, and that the federal government had approved her request for a disaster declaration and the state had just received 112,800 N95 masks.
“We’re grateful to FEMA for that; grateful to the White House for the disaster declaration,” Whitmer said, calling it “good news in the midst of a lot of really tough stuff that’s going on.”
This story has been updated with Whitmer’s comments on CNN’s “State of the Union” and “New Day.”
CNN’s Devan Cole contributed to this report.