President Donald Trump lashed out Friday at Democrats, trying to pass the buck for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and hoping to pass the blame for an economy ravaged on his watch.
The strategy of division was on full display Friday, with Trump aiming ire at Democratic governors in key battleground states through a series of three rapid-fire Tweets: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”
And on Virginia, he threw in a reference to gun rights: “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
The President’s terse messages echoed and encouraged protests being staged by conservative groups in all three of those blue battleground states and beyond. Trump made no mention of Republican governors, who in many cases are working alongside their Democratic counterparts, trying to fight the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
“I think some things are too tough,” Trump said Friday evening at a White House briefing, not offering any specifics. Asked whether states should lift their stay-at-home orders, he said: “No, but I think elements of what they’ve done are too much.”
It was the clearest indication yet the President is laying the groundwork for blaming the dire economic conditions on decisions of Democratic governors, rather than taking steps to improve his actions and acknowledge failures of the administration’s handling of the crisis.
While he began the week by incorrectly declaring that he had “total authority” as President, Trump is ending it by passing that responsibility to governors, which advisers inside and outside the White House said was a clear tactic to try to safeguard himself from any fallout that could come with trying to reopen the national economy.
Although Trump boasted of handing authority to governors to make their own decisions, his calls for liberation sent the opposite message.
“Until we solve the medical crisis, the economic one is going to go longer and it’s going to be harder for us to come back,” Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan told CNN. “A sustained, consistent, scientifically-based message from the federal government and the White House in particular would really save more lives.”
Whitmer is among the Democratic governors who have been in the President’s crosshairs. The message to “liberate” followed angry protests outside the Michigan capitol this week, where thousands defied and demonstrated against Whitmer’s strict statewide stay-at-home orders to combat the spread of coronavirus.
“I just have to lead,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, another Democrat, told reporters Friday when asked about the criticism from the President. “If they’re not going to do it, we’re going to do it.”
Blaming Democrats may be a longshot, but it’s a strategy the President and some Republicans are increasingly turning to. His campaign is facing a far more uncertain and tumultuous landscape than envisioned only a month ago, with advisers acknowledging deep concern about Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida – all of which he won in 2016.
The pandemic has upended the race, eviscerating one of Trump’s strongest calling cards: a robust economic record.
The President has also become increasingly sensitive to criticism that his administration was slow to ramp up testing in recent weeks, though his own aides privately acknowledge mistakes. After the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a flawed test earlier this year, the agency stalled to correct the mistake as thousands across the nation were infected.
Trump has brushed off appeals from business executives, governors and lawmakers – including some of his loyal supporters – that testing must be intensified before states can reopen their economies and ease restrictive guidelines. Even one of his closest allies, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, conceded the nation is “struggling with testing on a large scale.”
But some of Trump’s political advisers have downplayed the need for the federal government expand testing. In meetings, those aides have voiced doubt about advice from his health experts and assured Trump there is enough testing to begin reopening the country.
The President’s health advisers have cautioned that this viewpoint, which may have good intentions, is potentially naive and could backfire.
Instead of heeding calls to expand testing, Trump has spent far more time focusing on the politics of the crisis, lurching from attacking Democratic governors to embracing them. On Friday, he was back on the attack. In his comment aimed at Virginia, he added: “Save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
The messages, which were tweeted without explanation, seemed intended to taunt governors and encourage protesters who are rising up across the country in defiance of the stay-at-home orders that have created remarkable economic fallout.
In a news conference on Friday, where Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia was delivering an update about the state’s fight with coronavirus, he declared: “I do not have time to involve myself in Twitter wars.”
A conference call with Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Democrats turned tense on Friday, an aide familiar with the call said, when Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia pointedly asked “why the President was trying to incite division in the midst of a global pandemic.”
When Pence said the administration was working respectfully with governors, Kaine responded that tweets about liberation were hardly respectful.
“I want to assure the American people that we’re going to continue to work with your governors and your state health officials to scale testing in the days ahead,” Pence said Friday evening at the White House briefing.
The President’s approval rating is on a downward trend, according to a new CNN Poll of Polls, after he reached positive territory last month. In the new average of the five latest national polls, 45% approve of the way Trump is handling his job and 51% disapprove.
With unemployment claims reaching a staggering 22 million, the President faces a six-month march to reelection on the defensive, declining to take ownership of the crisis or accept a measure of responsibility for his response.
While incumbent presidents hold myriad advantages over their challengers, they also carry an unparalleled ownership of the economy. The degree to which Trump can transfer that blame to a Democratic governor is an open question.
“Traditionally blaming other people for a bad economy doesn’t work. If the economy is bad, voters will punish leaders at all level, especially the President,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who advised Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and President George W. Bush. “If you’re an independent voter who is unemployed in November, you’re going to be pissed at everybody, not just the governor.”
This story has been updated to include additional Trump quotes.