Donald Trump’s exchanges with Democratic politicians usually go something like this: He picks a petty fight, almost always lobbing a tweet with a low-grade schoolyard taunt. The politician he targeted makes some bland statement about not engaging, but slips in a few passive-aggressive comments to needle him back. Political reporters lap it up.
That’s what’s been playing out between Trump and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer over the past week.
Except this time is different, Whitmer says. This time, Trump’s routine is going to lead to Americans dying.
While Trump is taking shots at her from the White House, Whitmer told me, “more people are going to get sick and more lives are going to be lost because we don’t have enough testing, because we don’t have enough [personal protective equipment], because there aren’t enough ventilators, because the national stockpile, I understand, is getting close to being depleted. And we’re not even close to meeting the needs of people that are already sick, and more and more are going to get sick.” This isn’t a normal political fight, she said. “There’s going to be a horrible cost.”
Whitmer is trying to be diplomatic, even as she tries to negotiate for lifesaving equipment with a president who seems ready to let his personal vendettas guide his public-health response. She’s worried not just as the governor of a state that’s been shorted, but as the daughter of a man with COPD who’s living in Florida and who’s potentially put at more risk by the governor there, Ron DeSantis, who until earlier this week was taking more of a trust-his-gut approach to the pandemic. Whitmer said she’s dismayed by “the inconsistent messaging and the lackadaisical attitude at the national level, [which] really undermined the seriousness of the issue for a lot of people,” and by the “staggered inconsistent response we’ve seen nationally.”
Trump is often influenced by raw, self-interested politics. He’s looking to win votes in Michigan in November, but right now he’s depriving Michiganders of the help they need, because of his feelings about their governor. How does she make sense of that?
“I’m not sure how to answer the question,” Whitmer said.
Our full interview can be heard on the latest episode of The Ticket.
What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Edward-Isaac Dovere: Do you remember the first you heard about the coronavirus?
Gretchen Whitmer: You know, in January and February, [thinking] This is a global phenomenon that it's really just a matter of time. In February, my sister really started sounding the alarm. She was watching it very closely. Our dad is in Florida and we’ve been consistently, for a couple of months, trying to get him to come back to Michigan—frankly, because we’re so concerned about his ability to get the care he might need. He has COPD. And we really started working on him. We still have not been successful. And that’s why I’ve been watching what that governor’s not been doing, increasingly alarmed.
Dovere: What may turn out to be the final “normal” rally of the campaign happened in Detroit on March 9, the night before the Michigan primary. It was a Joe Biden event, and you were there endorsing him. The next day, things started to shut down. Why did that rally go on?
Whitmer: We were getting so much inconsistent messaging from the federal government and we hadn’t seen it occur in Michigan at that juncture. Now, the next day were the first two cases. And that’s when everything went to hyper-speed. But, you know, I’ve thought about that evening, because I’d told people, “We’ve got this virus. We’ve got to stop shaking hands.” We’re doing fist bumps, doing elbow bumps. You know, people were kind of teasing me about it, because they say, “Oh, I can shake your hand,” you know? I think that the inconsistent messaging and the lackadaisical attitude at the national level really undermined the seriousness of the issue for a lot of people. I think it still is.
Dovere: If you could go back in time and talk to yourself the morning of that rally, would you have said to cancel it?
Whitmer: I would say: Start buying every N95 mask I could get my hands on. I would say: Start shutting things down immediately. You know, despite all that, we’ve been more on the aggressive side and have moved faster than a lot of states. And each of those decisions has hurt. It weighs on you. You worry about people losing their jobs and not having money, and businesses that may not open again, and kids that you’re pulling out of school. And even at that juncture, there was conflicting advice even in the medical community.
Dovere: In 2018, when you were running in your primary, single-payer health care was an issue. You were not for it. Your primary opponent, whom you beat by quite a lot, was for it. Has anything over the last couple weeks made you think differently about that question or other questions about health-care access from where you were before this outbreak began?
Whitmer: I’ve always been for getting everyone covered. The debate in my primary, I thought, was not an honest one, because the state isn’t going to do this on our own. The ability for a governor who’s going in with a Republican legislature—I couldn’t tell people I can single-handedly do something that I know I couldn’t do. I just don’t think it’s intellectually honest. And that’s precisely why I took a more thoughtful approach to the same goal, which is getting more people covered.
Dovere: It’s impossible to talk with you about what’s going on here without getting into what your relationship has been with President Trump. He doesn’t want to talk to you. If you were on a call with him right after this one, what would you say to him to try to break through?
Whitmer: You know, it’s interesting. He did call me on Tuesday. And you know, I just reiterated: I don’t want to fight. We need to join together in the fight against COVID-19. We can’t afford to fight each other. We all have to be fighting this virus. And so I would say: Thank you for the 400 ventilators that FEMA sent. I’d say: I need about 5,000 more immediately. Every one of us has a job to do here. And the federal government, I think, really should be taking more of a national strategy. Having this patchwork of policies makes it more porous in terms of our ability to fight COVID-19 as a nation. We need to focus on bringing manufacturing back into the United States. We’re waiting on swabs from Italy and masks from China. Global trade is not all bad, but the fact of the matter is, we are at a disadvantage in terms of fighting COVID-19. And I would say we need to deploy the Defense Production Act in a meaningful, real way to meet the needs of Americans right now. These are the things I’ve said consistently on television. I’ve seen other governors say essentially the same thing and not have the same reaction. I’m not going to spend a lot of energy analyzing the difference there. But I will just say this: I’m doing my job and I’m doing the same job that governors across the country are doing. We are trying, in this untenable environment, to do as much as we can for the people we serve.
Dovere: Are people going to die because of the government’s shortfalls?
Whitmer: More people are going to get sick and more lives are going to be lost because we don’t have enough testing, because we don’t have enough PPE, because there aren’t enough ventilators, because the national stockpile, I understand, is getting close to being depleted. And we’re not even close to meeting the needs of people that are already sick, and more and more are going to get sick. And so I do think that there’s going to be a horrible cost because of all of these pieces.
Dovere: Joe Biden has been talking with a lot of people about what’s going on. One of the things that puts you into the conversation is, of course, you get talked about as a potential running mate for him. He said he’s going to pick a woman. You’re from a swing state. Even aside from that, you’ve generated a lot of national political interest. If he called and asked you to do it, what would your answer be?
Whitmer: Well, I’ll just say this: I am 15 months into my job as governor. I worked for two years to earn the opportunity to have this job. And no one could ever have anticipated that we would be here in this moment. I didn’t go out looking for the national spotlight. I know that the most important thing, where I’m spending all my energy right now, is trying to help my frontline health-care providers and trying to educate Michiganders so that we can slow the spread of COVID-19. I don’t like being attacked in national news. I didn’t go out of my way looking for all of this conversation. I just know that I need assistance and I need to use my voice at every opportunity to try to highlight what’s happening in Michigan so that I can help my nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists who are doing superhero work.
Dovere: The president called you “that woman from Michigan.” When you did your Daily Show interview, you were wearing a T-shirt that had that written on it. So there’s some of this fight that you seem to have identified with.
Whitmer: I have been called many things in my lifetime. And I know that if you can, try to keep it in perspective ... Someone sent me that shirt and I thought it kind of said, This is not something that was going to hold me back. I’m going to keep trying to forge every alliance I can, whether it’s with the administration or it’s with a Michigan business that can produce some of these needed things or it is someone who will reach in and contract with me to help me get this critical equipment in. We’re gonna keep perspective because that’s what’s most important. And that means we are not one another’s enemies. The enemy is COVID-19.