Of the many things that have drawn President Donald Trump’s political wrath during the coronavirus pandemic, blue states and Democratic governors may be near the top of the list.
As the weeks have ticked by and the Nov. 3 election has grown closer, attacks on the leaders of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Michigan have continued. And along the way, Trump has lied and pushed the idea that state restrictions are being used as a political tool against him as he faces a heated re-election race against former Vice President Joe Biden.
“When you look at North Carolina, when you look at these governors are under siege, Pennsylvania, Michigan and a couple of others, you've got to open these states up,” Trump said during Tuesday night’s debate. “It's not fair. You're talking about almost it's like being in prison.”
All three of those states were won by Trump in the 2016 presidential election and are likely critical to his success this November. And all three are led by Democratic governors who have been heavily criticized by Trump as they’ve flexed their emergency powers to try and contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Trump’s fixation and comments has worried health experts as the pandemic continues on with no end in sight. Early Friday, Trump announced that he and first lady Melania Trump had both tested for COVID-19 and would be quarantining in the White House.
“The president is just spreading misinformation and going to limit the effectiveness of any public health measures that are in place because people are going to think that they're not necessary, or some portion of the population will think that they're not necessary and fail to comply,” said Aubree Gordon, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, speaking before Trump's positive test.
In a statement to The Daily Beast Thursday, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was scathing over the words Trump has thrown at the state, saying “The president’s statement is false. Pennsylvania has been reopened for months.”
“The Trump administration’s response to this pandemic has been a complete failure,” press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger said in an email. “The president should focus on helping states by providing a national plan instead of trying to score cheap political points through inaccurate statements like this.”
A spokesperson for Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer struck a similar tone in a statement this week, saying Trump’s “just dead wrong.”
“The executive order Governor Whitmer signed (last) Friday opens virtually all of our businesses,” Whitmer’s press secretary Tiffany Brown said in an email. “Michigan is open for business, and the economy is coming back thanks to the aggressive actions we took to keep people safe and save lives.”
Trump has long seized on states reopening responses to score political points, and Tuesday night’s debate allowed him to recycle some of his greatest hits. At one point, Trump said, “if you look at Pennsylvania, if you look at certain states that have been shutdown, they have Democrat governors all, one of the reasons they're shut down is because they want to keep it shut down until after the election on Nov. 3 because it's a political thing.”
While those attacks on the Democratic-run states essentially weren’t new and were similar to comments he had made earlier in September, they remained alarming and unfounded.
“One of them came out last week, you saw that, oh we’re going open up on Nov. 9. Why Nov. 9? Because it’s after the election,” Trump said a few minutes later about an unnamed state. “They think they’re hurting us by keeping them closed. They’re hurting people.”
The Trump campaign did not directly respond to a request to clarify what state he was referring to on Tuesday. Instead, a spokesperson sent along a statement doubling down on the lie that restrictions were being used to hurt the president.
“Instead of working hand-in-hand with President Trump to rebuild our economy and restore jobs lost during the pandemic, some Democrat governors refuse to lift burdensome restrictions on states in an attempt to hurt the President’s chances of re-election,” Trump campaign deputy national press secretary Courtney Parella said in an email.
That president’s continued emphasis on challenging the three states has only further added to the politicization of the pandemic that has troubled health experts as following public health restrictions and guidelines have remained critically important in the fight against the coronavirus.
“My concern is that it undermines the idea that the pandemic response should be driven by science and facts and turns everything into a political proposition in a way that really makes it difficult to address problems that fundamentally don't care about politics,” said Katie Dickinson, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health. “COVID doesn’t care about politics.”
Trump’s relationships with the nation’s Democratic governors have frequently been fraught during the pandemic, with one exception being New Jersey’s Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy who figured out early that flattery was a key currency when dealing with the president.
Trump’s disrespect for Democratic governors has gone beyond words. He’s happily ignored public health restrictions as he returns to the rallies and attention he’s craved during the pandemic—though on Thursday his campaign acquiesced to a request from the mayor of La Crosse, Wisconsin to move his rally due to a virus spike there, according to The Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Back in May, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper didn’t back down as Trump pushed for a full Republican National Convention to still be held in Charlotte come late August. Cooper’s resistance due to public health concerns caused Trump and the RNC to instead try and hold a large scale convention in Jacksonville, Florida, only for plans to crumble and be abandoned. The president has continued to publicly seethe at Cooper’s coronavirus approach in the months since.
Cooper’s office did not respond to a request for comment this week, though the governor did announce Wednesday he was moving the state into phase three of its reopening come Friday as he warned that the state’s “stability is fragile.”
“The key indicators we watch in North Carolina remain mostly stable,” Cooper said during a briefing Wednesday. “But I have to tell you that we see warning signs that the disease could spike again, here and across the country.”
Even as Trump continues to make a generalized push for reopening that he’s heavily politicized, communities in those states Trump has focused his fire on are still facing challenging fights against COVID-19.
In Centre County, home to Pennsylvania State University, cases have spiked in recent weeks. And the approach the president and others are taking at making broad statements about states like Pennsylvania has been challenging said Michael Pipe, a Democrat who serves as chair of the Centre County Board of Commissioners.
“We're appreciating what's happening. We appreciate the fact that he's on the campaign trail. We appreciate the fact that he has a certain message,” Pipe said of the president. “But at the end of the day, does it help us get to a better place in keeping people safe, or is it just ratcheting up the temperature in the room? And I think it's time to focus on strategies that can make sure that we all are kept safe.”
Graham County, North Carolina has also been facing a challenging situation as of late in its COVID-19 fight. The county of more than 8,000 people had fared decently until a recent nursing home outbreak, said Rebecca Garland, the county’s manager and finance officer, and cases in the area have spiked. After having only 49 positive tests as of Aug. 26, according to the county public health department’s Facebook page, that measure had jumped to 179 by Thursday.
Even by ambulance, it can take two hours to get to a major hospital, Garland said, and the pandemic has only added to the challenges the county would normally be faced with. And with all that on her mind, Trump’s comments about North Carolina needing to open have given her pause, leaving her with the feeling that Trump “needs to allow the governors to chart their own course.”
“He doesn't know our dynamics down here," Garland said of the state, pointing to the president’s viewpoint from the White House. “He doesn't know about our rural communities who don't have adequate health care to begin with. He doesn't know the struggles that we have in trying to get people to adequate medical care.”