It shouldn’t be all that remarkable when two leaders talk in a crisis. On Sunday morning, President Donald Trump got on the phone with Mayor Bill de Blasio to discuss what New York City needs to survive a white-hot outbreak that is only getting worse. De Blasio asked him to send more ventilators and military personnel, warning that in a week’s time, the health-care system could be overwhelmed.
Yet with these particular leaders at this particular point in history, it is remarkable. Until recently, de Blasio told me, none of his calls to the upper reaches of the White House were returned. Two weeks ago, the Democratic mayor said publicly that Trump was “betraying” his native city by not sending more life-saving medical equipment. Ever sensitive to criticism, Trump said, in turn: “I’m not dealing with him.”
Defeating a pandemic is hard enough, but Trump has introduced another layer of complexity: He has personalized the battlefield. He calls COVID-19 “the invisible enemy,” but he also seems fixated on the visible variety—all Democratic leaders, who in his view have been insufficiently grateful for the federal government’s response. A stray complaint about equipment shortages invites a public feud with the man controlling the spigot. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” the president said at a news conference last week.
But Democrats can be useful foils for only so long—the virus is already moving beyond blue-state hot spots into the rural red states that are the pillars of Trump’s support. As more people become infected in broader swaths of the country, Trump will face a fresh wave of calls for ventilators, masks, and money. It won’t be so easy to demonize a handful of discontented governors and mayors. Complaints will be coming from friends.
Indeed, appeals from Republican governors are already starting. In a conference call with governors yesterday, Trump fielded requests for more medical equipment from leaders from both parties. Like their Democratic counterparts, Republican leaders will need to navigate Trump’s shifting moods—something they may be more suited to handle.
His proclivities have left some Democratic state officials flummoxed. They’ve been casting about for strategies to win his cooperation. De Blasio told me he looks to commend Trump when it’s deserved. “If he does something that helps my people, I will praise it and be thankful,” the mayor told me. “If he doesn’t, I’ll say it out loud and call for action.” For others, there may be no hope. Trump has called Washington Governor Jay Inslee a “snake” and said he won’t speak to him. Inslee’s team sounds utterly baffled about what to do. “We’re trying to act as if we’re interacting with a normal president, or at least a normal Republican president,” an aide in Inslee’s administration told me.
“The administration’s response in general has been an abysmal failure, and he compounds that failure by regularly attacking the governors to whom he has passed the buck,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, told me. “I just don’t think we can allow ourselves to normalize a president who is politically attacking the very governors who are trying to save lives right now in the absence of real federal leadership.”
Inside the White House, there seems to be little sympathy for some of the Democratic governors who have complained the loudest. One White House aide described a pattern in which some governors privately praise the administration and then, later, publicly scorn Trump’s handling of the pandemic. “We have a really productive call with Governor X, who is incredibly complimentary, and then he goes out and does a press conference and kicks the shit out of us,” this person told me.
“The president has been willing to talk to anyone, without regard to party, geography, or infection rates,” the presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway told me. “He’s talking to anybody and everybody who wants to get a handle on our federal response effort. We’re all navigating this unprecedented, unanticipated pandemic together.”
Trump, though, is sensitive to anything he sees as ingratitude. If his administration sends planeloads of ventilators—a national resource—he wants a thank you, not a complaint about why it didn’t come sooner.
He’s ridiculed Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whose state has one of the largest outbreaks in the nation, over her requests for medical supplies. He’s said she’s “way in over her head” and “doesn’t have a clue.” “We send her a lot,” Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity last week. “Now she wants a declaration of emergency, and we’ll have to make a decision on that.” The relationship isn’t likely to mend soon. After Trump approved the disaster declaration for Michigan on Saturday, Whitmer called the move “a good start.” But she said it wasn’t sufficient to cover Michigan families’ need for meals, housing, and rental assistance.
“It’s unprecedented that a president in the middle of something like this would ask you to bow down and kiss his you-know-what in order to get things that every citizen in the United States should get right now,” Jim Ananich, the Democratic leader of the Michigan state Senate, told me. (When I asked her about Whitmer, Conway replied: “If she spent less time on TV auditioning to be Joe Biden’s vice president and more time on the ground with FEMA and medical professionals, that would be helpful to the people of Michigan.”)
One Democratic governor who’s forged what seems a durable rapport with Trump is New Jersey’s Phil Murphy. The reason may come down to how he speaks about the president. He’s generous in his praise, gentle in his criticism.
When I spoke with Murphy last week, he lauded Trump for providing support for four federally run makeshift field hospitals in his state. Should Trump have said that he wants to restart the economy by Easter? I asked. Another Democrat might have used the question to skewer the president’s judgment. Murphy didn’t. Instead, he told me: “If we think we’ve broken the back of the coronavirus by Easter, I’ll be the happiest guy maybe not even in New Jersey, but America.” (Trump scuttled his Easter goal on Sunday.)
“We’ve got one president right now,” Murphy added, “and we can’t do what we need to do without the White House.” Murphy isn’t looking for a fight with Trump—and he’s not getting one. Trump called him “a terrific guy” at a news conference on Sunday.
The virus’s spread will create political pressures Trump has so far escaped. At first the disease took root in densely packed blue states where many residents travel internationally and to which tourists flock. Trump seized on that fact, pointing to red states that have had comparatively few infections. He singled out Republican Governor Jim Justice, whose rural state of West Virginia was the last in the nation to report any cases of infection. “Big Jim, the governor—he must be doing a good job,” Trump said at a news conference earlier this month. (Trump on occasion has also praised some blue-state governors for their performance, like Murphy.)
Conservative pundits have amplified Trump’s message. “These spreads are mainly in the blue states,” the author Dinesh D’Souza said in a recent Fox News appearance. “What I find kind of interesting is these blue-state governors and mayors, they’re criticizing Trump, but they also have the outstretched hand.”
Over time, though, Trump may find even some of his closest political allies demanding more help from the White House. Republicans’ traditional aversion to government intervention and economic aid will face a severe test as more and more of their constituents fall ill. Health experts expect infections to appear more widely as people living in red America travel out of state and then return home, and as people in stricken areas venture out. West Virginia, which had done little testing, now has more than 100 confirmed cases. “New York is the hardest-hit state right now only because New York has been doing more testing per capita pretty much than anyone else, and New York has a much higher population density, which is what we would expect,” Michael LeVasseur, an epidemiology and biostatistics professor at Drexel University, told me.
Before long, Republicans may be the ones with the outstretched hands. How Trump responds will prove revealing. Will he see pleas for help as more legitimate when they’re coming from red states rather than blue?