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Unafraid to call out Trump, Hogan emerges as lead GOP voice for urgent action on pandemic

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued new restrictions on March 30 to prohibit residents from leaving home, except for trips considered essential. (Video: Gov. Larry Hogan)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) phoned his favorite country radio station the other day and made a confession. He can’t listen anymore. The coronavirus pandemic consumes his every waking moment.

The host seemed unsurprised.

“Do you ever get tired of being interviewed?” she asked. “Because I’m seeing you everywhere.”

As the virus’s infection rate has surged, so has Hogan’s presence on national news and talk shows he once shunned. The Republican has emerged as chief spokesman for the nation’s governors, offering a message equal parts sobering and hopeful: This pandemic, he says, is worse and will last longer than anyone imagines, and America will get through it together.

The media blitz is driven partly by Hogan’s role as chair of the National Governors Association. But it’s also fueled by his unvarnished predictions of an impending catastrophe, his resolute explanations of why the economic harm of a mass shutdown is worth the cost, and his position as one of the few Republicans willing to question statements by President Trump and declare that the United States was “caught flat-footed.”

Hogan’s latest warning, based on the projections of epidemiologists advising him, is that the capital region will be the nation’s next hot spot, potentially crippling the federal government’s ability to respond.

On conference calls, he has confronted the president about a lack of testing but been generally genial, people familiar with the exchanges say. After Trump said testing was no longer an issue, Hogan responded flatly in a radio interview: “That’s just not true.”

“There is continuing friction, because they say we have things available, but things are not available,” Hogan told The Washington Post. “They say, ‘Get on the phone; governors can get all these things.’ I just got off the phone; no governors have these things.”

Trump aides have complained to Hogan’s team about his public venting, according to White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. Some Hogan supporters in Maryland have accused him of underestimating the financial hardship of social distancing. The American Civil Liberties Union blasted him Friday for refusing to release prisoners to limit the virus’s spread.

Yet Hogan keeps on, whether in a black baseball cap and sunglasses or an open-collared work shirt, presenting himself as a straight-talking executive walking a delicate line between thanking the federal government for its help and correcting the president’s pinballing rhetoric.

“Yes, it’s facts, and yes, it’s information, but it’s also calm leadership,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist widely credited with elevating the presidential candidacy of former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. “People are sitting at home, wanting to be comforted. There’s an endless hunger for information, and I don’t know why more people aren’t stepping into that void.”

Leadership in a pandemic: How Hogan, Bowser and Northam took charge

Hogan, 63, has zero health training — he jokes that his science background is limited to Meteorology 101 at Florida State University — but was one of the first governors to implement social distancing. He says the Washington region’s caseload is just 10 days behind the “war zone” in New York, where patients are close to overwhelming hospitals.

“It’s not because I have nothing else to do and want to see my mug on TV,” Hogan said of his wall-to-wall appearances — as many as seven a day, from rural radio stations and Fox morning shows to C-SPAN specials and MSNBC prime-time slots. “It’s because I think it’s critically important.”

Other governors call him for advice and to swap strategies. Hogan speaks directly with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about the economic fallout; with Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading expert in infectious diseases, about Hogan’s hunches on what’s next; and with Vice President Pence — a friend and former fellow governor — who is leading the White House’s pandemic response. Hogan has complained privately that it is hard to tell who is in charge.

Those close to Hogan said his personal and political experience is tailor-made for a crisis. He relishes the role of protector and recognizes the limits of his own knowledge. And he learned from his public bout with cancer that unvarnished transparency builds trust.

“The governor loves a good fight, and there is none bigger than covid right now,” said Doug Mayer, a Republican strategist and former Hogan aide.

Hogan has leaned into advice he said former New Jersey governor Chris Christie offered shortly after Hogan’s election, when he faced riots and unrest in Baltimore: Be visible. Be simultaneously a decisive general and a genuine “consoler-in-chief.”

“He’s being honest about what he needs and what the shortcomings have been, but he’s not broadsiding and indicting the president and the administration,” said Christie, who said he has been speaking with Hogan several times a week. “He’s worried on a human level and a supplies level, trying to grapple every day to ensure his systems are not overloaded. That’s when you start to have preventable deaths.”

As governor of a state dominated by Democrats, Hogan has mostly limited his agenda over the past six years to populist concerns such as ending gerrymandering, lowering tolls and making school start after Labor Day. He has described himself as a goalie, playing defense against proposals he says cost too much or go too far.

But with the pandemic, Hogan is on offense. “I don’t consider myself the brightest guy in the world or the most talented,” he said. “I think the one skill I really have is I know to bring in smarter people around me and to take advice.”

Op-ed: Hogan and Whitmer: What governors need from Washington now

Hogan’s chief of staff is a former corporate crisis consultant. His communications director is a Capitol Hill veteran who worked for former House speakers Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The governor relies on a team of coronavirus experts his staff put together: epidemiologists from Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland Medical System, emergency logistics specialists and hospital executives. Every few days, they walk him through the latest public health science, and he peppers them with questions, according to people on the calls.

From the initial task force meeting in early February — weeks before Maryland’s first known coronavirus case — Hogan was talking about the success of social distancing in Asia, said Thomas Inglesby, a Johns Hopkins expert in epidemic planning.

“He’s been asking questions . . . what can we do to reduce this peak, how much can we can reduce it, what else can we do?” Inglesby said.

Hogan said he can’t recall exactly how he started paying attention to the pandemic, though he speculates he was attuned to what was happening in South Korea because of his wife, Yumi, who grew up there. He has given up on the possibility that the United States could deploy widespread testing the way South Korea has, or even that testing capacity will catch up with the patient surge.

Larry and Yumi Hogan: A historic first couple with a romantic backstory

The immediate past chair of the NGA, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) said his single daily source of joy in this pandemic is that he doesn’t have Hogan’s job, which he described as leadership “on steroids.”

“He takes the role very seriously,” said Bullock, who credited Hogan with pressing the administration to invoke the National Defense Act to force companies to build supplies and give states federal aid to pay for National Guard missions. “He’s done a great job of listening to the governors throughout the country and also reflecting some of our concerns.”

Hogan lacks the prominence of California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) or New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), who is overseeing the nation’s largest outbreak. Yet his agitation has helped Maryland score some resources — the state got 138 ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile, while other Mid-Atlantic states received zero. Still, Maryland got none of the body bags, surgical gowns, nasal swabs and safety goggles it requested.

The Democrats who control most of Maryland’s deep-blue politics have praised Hogan’s leadership, particularly in contrast to the president. They also say his GOP ties make it incumbent on Hogan to more aggressively motivate the Trump administration.

“We don’t need Hogan’s help moving Democrats in the House,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), the state’s most liberal member of Congress, who suggested that Hogan’s phone calls to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were not the best use of his time. “We need Hogan to move the Republican Trump administration to respond.”

Feds gave D.C. a fraction of what it sought to fight coronavirus

In his first term, Hogan avoided national media appearances to show he was focused on Maryland, a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. Now his sprawling reception room at the State House has been converted to a “war room,” with an area dedicated for video conferences and television appearances.

The governor pursued more network and cable outlets last year while weighing a primary challenge to Trump. He decided not to run but said he wants to play a role in defining the future of the Republican Party. To that end, he has launched a political action committee called America United, which is blasting out links to all the recent media attention. Hogan has delayed the launch of his political memoir, which was set to be released in June.

Although analysts have long said there is no obvious national perch for Hogan in Trump’s GOP, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele — a former lieutenant governor in Maryland — disagrees.

Given his performance so far in the pandemic, Steele said, Hogan’s political future could look like “whatever he wants it to be.”

The governor swears he hasn’t considered any potential political benefit of his virus response.

“This is going to sound, you know, insincere,” Hogan said. “But I mean, honestly, I really haven’t given any thought at all to the politics of it at all.”

Perspective: Whether D.C. becomes the next hot spot depends on what we do now

In a city defined by power, a virus has seized control

Inside the coronavirus testing failure: Alarm and dismay among the scientists who sought to help

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