On Tuesday, Trump suddenly seemed to have identified a culprit: New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D).
The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Trump and Cuomo had forged a tentatively strong relationship in the fight against the coronavirus, with Cuomo being careful with the president. As The Post’s Josh Dawsey wrote, Cuomo is known for having two modes: “Get along” and “kill.”
“For now, he is trying to get along,” Dawsey wrote. “And it seems to be working.” And indeed it did, with Trump saying Sunday that the “relationship has really been amazing.”
As we have often seen, though, such relationships with Trump can be extraordinarily fickle. That is especially true at a time of heightened tensions, when these two men are perhaps the most high-profile political figures facing down the crisis.
And they are now at odds again.
Cuomo said early Tuesday that a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) delivery of 400 ventilators to the country’s hardest-hit state was insufficient and that the state needed 30,000. He also had some choice words: “You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators? What are we going to do with 400 ventilators when we need 30,000?” He also more gently pleaded with Trump to begin using the Defense Production Act. “I don’t, for the life of me, understand the reluctance to use the federal Defense Production Act," he said. Cuomo didn’t specifically refer to Trump in either case, though.
The former complaint seemed to get some results, with Vice President Pence saying at a Fox News virtual town hall that afternoon that 2,000 more were being shipped from the national stockpile to New York on Tuesday and 2,000 more would be sent on Wednesday.
But later in the town hall, Trump appeared. And he apparently had Cuomo on his mind. Early in his appearance, he referred to an allegation floating around on fringe websites that Cuomo had in 2015 turned down thousands of ventilators. There was no pandemic taking place at that point, and the source was former New York lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey (R), who offered no apparent substantiation. The report accused Cuomo of establishing “death panels and lottery instead.”
Trump tried to hand a copy of the report to Fox News host Bill Hemmer, but Hemmer cited the need for social distancing.
“I’m not blaming him or anything else, but he shouldn’t be talking about us,” Trump said. “He’s supposed to be buying his own ventilators.”
Except Trump was blaming Cuomo, as he made clear later in another somewhat-awkward exchange.
When Deborah Birx, the head of the government’s coronavirus task force, weighed in on why the problem was worse in New York than in other states, she cited the density of the metropolitan area’s population and the fact that travelers may have returned there from Asia before travel restrictions went into place.
Trump wanted her to cite another reason, though: Cuomo. He cut in on Birx and asked her, “Do you blame the governor for that?”
Birx ignored the interjection and kept talking.
Trump also suggested that governors owe it to the administration to not to be critical as it doles out emergency supplies. “It’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well, too.”
It is easy to dismiss this as palace intrigue. But this is the president and the governor of the nation’s hardest-hit area quarreling about dire matters. Cuomo’s comments understandably irked Trump. But the announcement by Pence seemed to affirm that there was more that could be done, and Cuomo’s plea seemed to genuinely reflect the desperation that his state is facing. He did not cite Trump specifically, either.
Trump’s comments, meanwhile, seemed aimed at shifting blame to someone, which he indicated less than a week ago that he was not interested in doing. It also can’t be ignored that Cuomo’s response and his daily briefings have been widely praised for their empathy and detail in a way that Trump’s haven’t.
The president also took things further in hitting back at Cuomo, relying upon relatively obscure information to suggest the governor had dropped the ball years ago. And if Trump thinks Cuomo should have recognized the problem in 2015, what about Trump when he became president in 2017? It has been more than three years.
This probably is not the last we will hear about this. And a feud between the governor of New York and the president at this point would not be productive given the stakes at hand.