“When they’re not appreciative to me, they’re not appreciative to the Army Corps, they’re not appreciative to FEMA, it’s not right,” Trump said.
He then added: “I say, ‘Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington; you’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan. It doesn’t make any difference what happens.’ You know what I say: ‘If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.’ He’s a different type of person; he’ll call quietly anyway.”
Those states are particularly important. Washington state was the first real hot spot in the United States for the coronavirus outbreak. Michigan, which has among the nation’s highest rates of the virus, is also a key swing state in the 2020 election. You wonder if Trump’s comments about not wanting to communicate with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) during a crisis might be used against him in his reelection campaign.
Asked what more he wants from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), in particular, Trump said he just wants more gratitude.
“All I want them to do — very simple: I want them to be appreciative,” he said. “I don’t want them to say things that aren’t true. I want them to be appreciative.”
But that wasn’t the only time Trump indicated Friday that he factors personal things that have nothing to do with the coronavirus outbreak into certain decisions. While discussing why he invoked the Defense Production Act on Friday to force General Motors to build ventilators, he acknowledged what has been a long-standing beef with the auto company: the closure of a plant in Lordstown, Ohio.
Remarkably, Trump brought that up even as he was asked specifically why he had singled GM out for this step before any other company. He dismissed the idea that it was about cost and instead cited GM’s decisions on where to house its plants.
“We don’t want to think too much about cost when we’re talking about this. This is not cost,” Trump said. “I wasn’t happy where General Motors built plants in other locations over the years. . . . And so I didn’t go into it with a very favorable view. I was extremely unhappy with Lordstown, Ohio — where they left Lordstown, Ohio, in the middle of an auto boom because we had 17 car companies coming in and then they were leaving one plant in Ohio.”
A year ago, when the decision was first made, Trump attacked GM repeatedly for its plans to leave Lordstown.
He also referenced the Lordstown plant early Friday, before the decision to invoke the DPA for GM was announced.
The answers you’d expect to these kinds of questions would be: “The federal government is making these decision based upon need and merit.” Instead, Trump is connecting them to what he perceives as personal slights and business decisions that ran afoul of his “America First” political agenda.
These are a pair of remarkable admissions and implications. But they feed into Trump’s long-standing quest to try to keep politicians and companies in line. By now, it has become abundantly clear that running afoul of Trump carries the potential for significant peril, and that he’ll go after you at the drop of the hat. While the Clintons are renowned for keeping score when it comes to their political enemies, Trump is much more overt about it.
Amid the criticism Friday night, Trump and his allies sought to emphasize that he had said “I’m not talking about me” when talking about the lack of appreciation. But at another point, he made clear this was about him, to some extent: “When they’re not appreciative to me ... it’s not right.”
It’s now logical to ask whether such personal politics factor into the awarding of federal government help in a time of crisis, or he’s just blowing off steam. Trump did note that Pence still called the governors, despite his direction, so it’s not clear that either Michigan or Washington have actually suffered because of their governors’ comments about Trump.
But Whitmer did suggest Friday that something had changed with the federal response in her state and indicated she felt it was related to her criticism of it.
“What I’ve gotten back is that vendors with whom we had contracts are now being told not to send stuff here to Michigan," she said. "It’s really concerning.”
On GM, there is a very valid question about why it was singled out when other car companies and manufacturers haven’t yet been. White House economic adviser Peter Navarro did say at the same briefing that GM wasn’t as cooperative as it could have been.
“We ran into roadblocks with GM,” Navarro said. “We cannot afford to lose a single day, particularly over the next 30 to 60 days. So President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act as a way of enhancing and accelerating this mobilization.”
Trump himself alluded to some kind of problems in the negotiations. “Then we thought we had a deal for 40,000 ventilators, and all of a sudden it became six, and then price became a big object,” he said later. But he didn’t elaborate much, and he had previously said this wasn’t about cost.
This long-standing strategy has clearly worked for Trump, to some degree. It’s a big reason you see some Democrats like New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) treating Trump gently right now despite widespread concern within their party about Trump’s uneven handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Whether it works is one question; whether it’s appropriate in the serious circumstances in which we find ourselves is quite another.
Update: Inslee responds: