As Donald Trump discussed his effort to “reopen” the country in meetings at the White House earlier this month, he turned his attention to an unlikely ally.
During one such meeting with top political advisers from his campaign and West Wing, the president touched on how “helpful” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy—a Democrat—had been lately and joked about how wonderful it would be if he could get Murphy to come over “to my side,” according to an attendee of this strategy meeting. The president cited the example of Rep. Jeff Van Drew, another New Jersey politician who recently switched from being a Democrat to a pro-Trump, registered Republican.
Trump, however, then conceded that Murphy was too liberal for that, and said with a smirk that the Democratic governor would turn on him “in a second,” if conditions were ripe for Murphy.
“It’s classic Trump, really,” said one former senior administration official. “If you’re good to him, he’s good to you… But if you flinch from that, get ready for his [mean] tweets.”
Right now, though, conditions—particularly those associated with the ongoing pandemic and Jersey’s need for federal government assistance—have led to a transactional relationship built on cooperation, lots of public praise, and private amiability between Trump and a governor who had earlier trashed this president’s policies as “divisive and hateful” and “inhumane and cruel.” The two-way compliments went beyond that earlier this month when Murphy deployed 85 New Jersey National Guard troops to Washington , the only Democratic governor to do so, as Trump called for troops to respond to protests in D.C.
That decision and the fact that the president has latched onto Murphy as a rare example of a Democratic governor maintaining goodwill towards the president in the midst of a pandemic, has caused weariness among some New Jersey Democrats.
“The governor would say he has a relationship with the president. But I think Trump is manipulating Governor Murphy to his benefit. The president has gotten a lot more out of the narrative than Murphy has,” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said.
Fulop, who considered a run against Murphy for governor in 2016 and previously served in the U.S. Marines, said he thought Murphy’s decision to deploy troops “was a mistake.”
“I thought he got used,” Fulop said. “He was manipulated based on this relationship he has with Trump. He sent troops down to a place they have no place being.”
The governor’s office responded by providing a list of resources they’ve received from the White House and the federal government during the pandemic that included “550,000 test kits and 750,000 test swabs,” and “massive PPE shipments.”
“The president and the governor never talked about National Guard deployment,” a senior Murphy administration official said. “The ask didn’t come through the White House, it came through the military channels.”
The latest culmination of that public friendliness was the two dining together in Bedminster on Friday. Trump took to Twitter later that night to boast about the sit-down, posting that they “talked about many things, including the opening of the beautiful Garden State, getting people back to work, and rebuilding America’s infrastructure with projects like the Portal North Bridge, which I have given authorization to proceed!”
Some Democrats defended the apparent coziness given the needs of New Jersey. State Sen. Richard Codey said his fellow Democrat, “was there to get the dough,” for a state that needs a stimulus package along with the portal project the president tweeted about.
“The more you suck up to him, the better off you are if you want something. The more you tell him he's great, the more you'll get,” Codey told The Daily Beast about Trump.
Codey became familiar with Trump over time because of his work on the state’s casino laws, describing the president as “very insecure.” “[Murphy's] not talking liberal policies, right, left. No nothing at all,” Codey said. “He's just trying to make him his friend because he needs him right now.”
New Jersey has been one of the states hardest hit by the virus, totaling more than 12,800 deaths as of Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University, trailing only New York. It has also received $2.4 billion in federal aid as a result of the pandemic.
But during the pandemic the affection from the president has been a steady drumbeat, sprinkled into comments and briefings by Trump in a way that Republicans pining for the president’s approval may long to see for themselves.
There’s little illusion among either Democrats and Republicans that the relationship between the two will be long-lasting outside of the pandemic. Murphy has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of November and also chairs the Democratic Governors Association, putting the strange bedfellows on a collision course for the general election.
“If that means (Murphy) has to say not so nice things about Donald Trump, I don't think that this working together is going to stop that from happening,” State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, the Trump campaign’s co-chair in New Jersey, said of the governor sticking with his party to try and get Biden elected.
And some New Jersey Democrats dismissed that the friendliness between the two could be used by the president to try and foster an image of being more bipartisan than he actually is during a crucial election year.
But Trump has already used Murphy in that way.
During one briefing in late March after the president called out the Democratic governors of Washington and Michigan and complained that some state leaders were not “appreciative” enough of the federal government’s help, Murphy became the president’s foil.
If New Jersey’s governor were asked how the federal government is doing, Trump mused, “I think he’d say great. I think. He’s a Democrat.”
“I don't think he's giving legitimacy to anything,” a senior Murphy administration official said after describing a good working relationship with the White House despite policy disagreements. “...They have their own relationship on their own terms.”
Weeks later, when Murphy met with the president at the White House in April, Trump praised the New Jersey Democrat as “one of the governors that’s really done a job.”
“I just want to thank you for the great job you’ve done,” Trump later told the governor. In that same meeting, Murphy thanked Trump for “the enormous help in our darkest hour of need.”
But in recent weeks Murphy has been scrutinized by New Jersey lawmakers on Capitol Hill over the state guard move, saying the governor should have kept troops in the state to help with the coronavirus response.
“While I'm glad our NJ Guard is ending its DC mission Saturday, this should have happened sooner. We need our National Guard helping the Covid-19 response in NJ, not helping turn Washington into an armed camp,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski on Twitter earlier this month. “Governor Murphy has rightly tried to build good will with the Trump administration to get relief for our state, but there are lines.”
Under increased scrutiny, Murphy defended his decision, telling a WBGO in Newark that the deployment was “very small and very short-lived,” according to NJ.com. His office has said the state’s guard members were tasked with guarding the Lincoln Memorial and had no role in the scene at Lafayette Park where peaceful protesters were forced to make way for the president’s photo op, an act that Murphy called “disgraceful.”
On a call with the nation’s governors June 1, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast, President Trump called out Murphy by name, praising him for his response to the protests that took place throughout the state. “Phil Murphy did a very good job in New Jersey which is interesting because you had very little problem,” Trump said.
Murphy said he did not need to deploy National Guard troops.
“We had about 30 protests over the weekend… and we batted 28 out of 30,” Murphy said. “There were some disturbances in Atlantic City and Trenton… but based on what we see on television these instances, while unfortunate, were not big-scale events. We’ve got no philosophical issue whatsoever with using or not using the National Guard. But so far so good.”
The Murphy administration’s response to the virus also hasn’t been without controversy even while Trump has promoted his political rival. One of the most striking examples coming in a letter published and reported on by NJ.com earlier this month.
Anonymous employees in the state’s health department wrote to legislative leaders with a lengthy list of concerns over the state’s COVID-19 response, including around “a toxic culture of infighting in the Murphy administration that has prevented the right decisions from being made early enough for them to have had an impact.”
The New Jersey Republican State Committee has also attacked the governor throughout the pandemic including suing him last month over executive orders. In a statement on Monday the party declared that “Governor Murphy has lost control and can no longer cover up the mess he has created,” and slamming his “failed responses” to the pandemic.
And while some Democrats in New Jersey said this week they trust Murphy's approach with Trump for the sake of a state hit hard by the pandemic, that doesn’t mean their issues with the president have lessened.
“I don't know if I could have dinner with that man," Amy DeGise, chairwoman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization said of Trump. “I think there'd be blood in my mouth from biting my tongue so hard.”