One should be cautious, though, about taking that praise at face value.
Consider the context for Murphy’s praise of the federal government and of the president. He began the day with an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” a Fox News network show that Trump watches religiously. On it, he began by thanking Trump and noting that the president has “a lot of New Jersey blood on his team.” He then explained what he needed from the government.
Later, he appeared with Trump in the Oval Office. In front of a gaggle of reporters and a placard promoting the federal efforts, Murphy repeated his praise and the line about the Jerseyans on Trump’s team. He thanked Trump explicitly no fewer than 11 times, with cameras rolling.
“An honor to be with you,” Murphy said at one point. “And this is a big deal for us. Thank you.”
“Thank you very much,” Trump replied. “And, by the way, he's a Democrat, so I'm getting myself in trouble, but that's okay.”
Back in New Jersey a few hours later, Murphy had an announcement: The federal government was providing the state with a massive amount of protective gear and much-needed testing material.
Again, it's possible that Murphy's effusive appreciation for Trump was sincere. It's also possible that he understood that a way to ensure receipt of the material he needed was to go on Trump's favorite show to offer him praise and then to praise him more while posing for the media in the Oval Office.
If there’s any question about the utility of Murphy’s doing so for Trump, his campaign made clear this week that it sees encounters like the one with Murphy as useful. It released an ad showing a number of Democratic governors similarly expressing their appreciation for the government’s efforts. Trump wasn’t getting himself in trouble by posing with Murphy; he was getting something that his team sees as politically beneficial.
This difficulty in differentiating between sincerity and sycophancy in appealing to Trump has been an undercurrent to the Trump administration. It became a center of national attention several months ago as Trump faced impeachment for his interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Then it was Zelensky who was in the position of lavishing Trump with appreciation as Trump finagled for something he found useful: information that would cast former vice president Joe Biden in a negative light before the November election.
Trump was impeached for the pressure he put on Zelensky — pressure Trump still claims didn’t exist. In his July 25 call with the Ukrainian leader, Trump used a phrase that has come to embody the sense that everything from the president is transactional: After Zelensky raised the idea of buying weapons for Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia, Trump replied by saying that he wanted Zelensky to “do us a favor, though.” Over the ensuing months, the evidence that surfaced suggested that Zelensky understood how the transaction would have to play out. The pressure he faced was occasionally explicit but usually tacit.
During the trial that followed the impeachment, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), one of the House members leading the prosecution, offered an analogy that resonates in the moment.
“Would we say that you could, as president, withhold disaster relief from a governor unless that governor got his attorney general to investigate the president's political rival?” he asked hypothetically. “That to me is the most dangerous argument of all. It's a danger to have a president who would engage in this conduct.”
Trump didn’t do that. But it’s certainly not a stretch to wonder whether governors scrambling to address coronavirus outbreaks are in positions like Zelensky’s. Maybe the Trump administration isn’t specifically demanding public tribute. But maybe the governors also understand that paying tribute is the easiest way to get the material they need to protect constituents. If you’re a Democratic governor forced to choose between expanding testing and care for state residents or withholding a small political benefit from Trump, the choice is simple.
It’s by no means outlandish to suggest that Trump might be evaluating the political utility of his decisions in during the coronavirus pandemic. His briefings on the subject have included repeated efforts to demonstrate how well he was doing and constant efforts to redirect blame. And during a news conference Thursday, he made an explicit reference to the political utility of his decisions related to the virus.
He was asked about providing assistance to states seeing budget shortfalls due to the pandemic.
“So what’s happening is the Democrats have come to us, and they’d like to do a phase four” of funding, Trump said. We will think about what’s happening. They want to help the states, they want to help bailouts, and bailouts are very tough. And they happen to be Democratic states. It’s California, New York, Illinois, you start with those three.”
“The Republican states are in strong shape,” he added. “You know, I don’t know, is that luck or is that talent? Or is it just a different mentality?”
This isn’t really true. As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann noted Wednesday, red states are often similarly threatened by the economic damage from the virus. Moody’s Analytics estimates that more states that supported Trump in 2016 will see shortfalls as a result of the virus than states Trump lost.
The 2016 vote doesn’t always correlate to the party that holds the governor’s seat, of course, as in the state predicted to fare worst, Louisiana. It seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that the state’s fortunes are entirely a function of a Democrat who has been in office since January 2016 and not the state’s consistently Republican legislature. The politics are also tricky in Kentucky, a state whose senior senator has insisted that states not get any “bailouts” from the federal government.
“Republican states are doing very well. Maybe the Democrats should have brought this up earlier when we wanted certain things,” Trump added on Thursday. “They want to do things, and the Republicans are in a much better position from — I don’t want to use the word negotiating position, but we really, we’re in a negotiating position that’s different, because they want to bail out various states.”
He offered some examples of states that were doing badly — Illinois/blue — or, well, like Idaho and Iowa, both of which are red. Moody’s estimates that all three states will see shortfalls due to the virus, Iowa a minor one but both Idaho and Illinois with shortfalls of more than 10 percent of 2019 revenue.
“I think we want to take a little bit of a pause,” Trump said, “but if we do that, we will have to get something for it. Okay?”
And that’s the point, right there. If states want to get something — specifically to avoid the massive negative effects of budget shortfalls stemming from having to close down in order to lower death totals from the pandemic — they’re going to have to give something, too. Maybe that’s a politically useful photo op. Perhaps it’s something else that might benefit the administration and/or Trump’s reelection bid, like an infrastructure package that conforms to what Trump wants to see.
Politicians are political. This isn’t a new development. What’s stark in the Trump era is the extent to which politics has primacy. That it can be hard to differentiate between what Trump wants for himself and what he wants for his base and what he wants because he thinks is best for the country overall. That, at times, it’s not hard to differentiate between them — and the balance seems to weigh more toward the former concerns than the latter.
Murphy raised the subject of the budget shortfalls when meeting with Trump on Thursday.
“We've been crushed as a state,” Murphy said. “As you know, it's a state you know very well. We have 6,770 fatalities. But the curves, thank God, are beginning to show promise. And we're beginning to take some baby steps on that road to reopen. In fact, we've announced that, as of this weekend, our state and county parks, golf, under certain protocols, as of Saturday morning will be able to be open again.”
One major golf course in New Jersey, of course, is Trump's private club in Bedminster.
“Good,” Trump replied.
“And that’s a step on that road,” Murphy continued. “And again, we couldn’t be making the progress we’re making without you and your administration. And so to you and to your incredibly talented team with a very heavy dose of New Jersey blood on your team, including yourself —”
Trump laughed and said, “That’s true.”
“— who knows that state extremely well, we thank you for everything,” Murphy continued. “And again, financially, that’s another topic we’ll — you know, we’ve been crushed, and I appreciate your consideration on the financial side going forward as well.” That is, on the budget.
“So thank you for everything,” Murphy concluded.
“Thank you very much,” Trump replied, then changed the topic.
When a reporter asked about it later, Murphy noted that the money would “allow us to keep firefighters, teachers, police, EMS on the payroll, serving the communities in their hour of need. And that’s something that we feel strongly about.”
Murphy said it wasn't a bailout.
“We see this as a partnership, doing the right thing in what is the worst health-care crisis in the history of our nation,” he added. “And I want to again thank the president for an extraordinary spirit of partnership across the whole spectrum of our needs. And I want to reiterate that. Thank you.”
Trump said it was a “tough question,” but he did offer one olive branch — he praised Murphy personally.
Give a little, get a little.