WASHINGTON — When the president arrives in Michigan on Thursday to tour a Ford manufacturing plant outside Detroit, it is all but certain that the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, won’t be on the tarmac to greet him. In fact, Whitmer told Yahoo News in a phone conversation on Tuesday that “at this juncture” nobody at the White House had yet contacted her, some 48 hours ahead of Trump’s arrival in her state.
The White House had nothing to say on the record. But as a potential sign of things to come, Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning about Michigan expanding its vote-by-mail access, baselessly alleging that state officials had “illegally” sent absentee ballots to millions of the state’s residents. He made no mention of the two dams that broke on Tuesday in Midland, Mich., causing flooding and leading Whitmer to declare a state of emergency.
For her part, the governor called the president’s tweet “disheartening.” (He later deleted the tweet, only to issue a similar one that distinguished between ballots and ballot applications, but again falsely claiming that the move was illegal.)
Governors don’t have to meet arriving presidents, of course. But they frequently do. In 2012, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, met President Obama on the tarmac of a Phoenix airport, where they proceeded to publicly argue in view of cameras about how she portrayed him in her book. But after a wildfire killed 19 firemen some 20 months later, and Obama returned to Phoenix, she was there to greet him again, more pleasantly this time.
No pleasantries are expected on Thursday, when Air Force One will presumably land at Detroit Metro Airport ahead of Trump’s expected visit to the automotive plant. The lack of coordination is a sign of just how acrimonious things have become between the 48-year-old governor and the 73-year-old president, who has frequently used her as a foil, encouraging armed protesters at the statehouse in Lansing and pushing her to reopen the state quicker than she has wanted to.
“I’ve never imagined I’d be in a moment like this,” Whitmer told Yahoo News.
On Feb. 4, she delivered the Democratic response to the president's State of the Union address. The speech served as her debut on the national stage, but it has been her protracted confrontation with right-wing coronavirus protesters that has made her a focus of widespread attention. She is now considered a contender for the Democratic nomination for vice president, and she said earlier this week that she’d had an “opening conversation” with the campaign of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The day after the State of the Union, Trump was acquitted by the U.S. Senate in the nation’s first presidential impeachment trial in two decades. By that time, the coronavirus had been spreading across the United States for about three weeks, though it would be another month before most Americans learned about social distancing and N95 respirator masks.
While she was not one of the first governors to order a statewide lockdown, Whitmer’s measures were among the strictest, leading to critical coverage on Fox News and other pro-Trump outlets. Gateway Pundit, a far-right site known to traffic in disinformation, made the false claim that Whitmer was keeping Michiganders from purchasing American flags.
The first protest in Lansing took place four days after the Gateway Pundit story was published, one of many that misrepresented the contents of the governor’s executive order, which has since been extended.
Whitmer makes no apologies. “We’ve taken smart actions to push down the curve,” she says, referencing the decreasing rate of new infections in her state, “which saved a lot of lives in the process.” And she says that “the vast majority of people in this state take this seriously, whether they agree with every action I’ve taken or not. They’re doing their part.” Virtually every poll has found that most of Michigan supports the measures she has implemented, with one placing her approval rating for coronavirus response at 72 percent.
The president and some of his supporters maintain that the lockdown measures are actually more harmful than the coronavirus itself. Protesters have been making the argument by showing up at the statehouse, many of them heavily armed. Trump has praised them on Twitter, saying the protesters — some of whom carried Confederate flags — were “very good people” and that Whitmer should “give a little, and put out the fire.”
This appears to have had little effect on Whitmer’s determination to see the lockdown measures continue. “I’m not fearful,” the governor says, praising the protection she is offered by the Michigan State Police. But the danger is real: Last week, a man in Detroit was arrested for threatening to kill her.
“There’s a lot of anxiety across our nation right now,” Whitmer acknowledges. At the same time, she has little patience for the protesters who have gathered at the statehouse. One of them bore a placard depicting her as Adolf Hitler. Another had a sign that read, “Tyrants get the rope.”
Michigan will be one of the most ferociously contested battlefields in November’s election, and Whitmer sees the protests as little more than a kind of guerrilla campaign effort. (The state’s importance may also explain why Trump tweeted about its absentee ballot provisions; he incorrectly maintains such provisions help Democrats.)
“I think it was a political rally, to be honest,” she says of the protests. “It’s the same group over and over again. The Trump float rolls in, people show up with anti-choice propaganda, they show up with automatic rifles. They show up with Confederate flags, which is really not something you see in Michigan very often.” Many of those protests appear to have been backed by well-funded conservative organizations.
Whitmer says that in calls with other governors and the White House coronavirus task force, she has asked that “everyone with a platform take it upon themselves to do their part to bring down the heat.” That the reference is to Trump she does not need to say.
“What I’ve asked is that they consider doing that,” Whitmer adds circumspectly. “I know that my request was acknowledged, and my hope’s that it’s still under consideration,” she says, not sounding especially hopeful.
A change in Trump’s temperament aside, she is asking for two things from the federal government: resources and flexibility. The resources would come in the form of a congressional relief package to states, a measure Republicans are hesitant to undertake.
Those resources, in turn, would give Whitmer the flexibility to reopen the state at what she believes is the correct pace. She says the state is currently on the third step of its six-phase reopening plan. She has no intention to rush it, not even with the all-important college football season now only a precious few months away.
Whitmer says it is “highly unlikely” that the University of Michigan’s famed “Big House” football stadium will see its 107,000 seats filled with fans in the fall. “It kills me to have to say that, because I love a Big Ten football game as much as anybody,” the governor says. She will have two of her own children enrolled at the flagship campus in Ann Arbor this fall, though it is not entirely clear yet whether the school will be open to in-class instruction.
Much as Trump and some conservatives want to push the country into reopening, Whitmer doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. “The fact of the matter is,” she says, “until we have a vaccine or a cure that has been produced in mass quantities, it’s going to be very unlikely that we have big groups of people coming together.” Most experts believe it will be well over a year before either effective treatments or vaccinations are widely available.
Until then, Whitmer insists on taking measures that are as unpleasant as they are effective.
“It’s really important that we avoid a second wave of COVID-19,” the governor says. “As tough as this moment has been — and it’s been hard — it would be so much worse if in a month, or four months, we have to go to a stay-home order again.” The same experts who caution against expecting a medical cure on the near horizon have warned that the coronavirus could return with a newfound viciousness in November.
Trump will arrive in Michigan as new poll numbers find that every governor except one has a higher coronavirus approval rating than he does, according to the Washington Post. The one who doesn’t, Georgia’s Brian Kemp, is stuck with the president at 43 percent. Whitmer’s coronavirus approval rating is 19 points higher, at 62 percent.
The poll only affirms the high esteem in which many Americans have come to hold their governors, even as both parties have, in recent cycles, shunned governors on their presidential tickets.
“I’ve got a number of governors that I’ve gotten quite close to,” Whitmer says, describing frequent conversations with fellow Democrats from the Midwest: J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Tim Walz of Minnesota. At the same time, she has forged relationships with Larry Hogan of Maryland and Mike DeWine of Ohio, two Republicans who have been praised for their coronavirus response. They are now among the most popular governors in the nation.
“No one understands what we’re going through like we do,” Whitmer says of her fellow governors. “We’re learning from one another, and we’re helping one another.”
During the early morning hours when Trump sends many of his tweets, Whitmer is meeting via phone with her executive team. “By that point I’ve been up for many hours,” she says. “I’ve consumed news, my coffee and gotten ready for the day.”
But even if a number of those Trump tweets are aimed directly at her, she is loath to engage in the kinds of partisan battles that seem to energize him. “We are not one another’s enemy,” Whitmer says. “The enemy is a virus.”
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