WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will visit Michigan on Thursday, the home turf of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a frequent target of his attacks, as he looks to tout his response to the coronavirus pandemic in a pivotal battleground state.
Whitmer, who has emerged as one of Trump’s most prominent foils in his bid to pressure states to reopen for business, has sparred with the president throughout the pandemic over the administration’s handling of the crisis and protests in Michigan against stay-at-home restrictions.
The first-term Democratic governor was thrust into the national spotlight in March when Trump dismissed her as “the woman in Michigan” and “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” after she repeatedly criticized the federal government for a lack of planning and a slow response to the pandemic.
Trump has also cheered on protesters demanding a rollback of stay-at-home orders, calling on supporters to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” even as his task force released new guidelines recommending states adopt a phased approach to reopening only after experiencing a downward trajectory of new coronavirus cases for two weeks.
Michigan has the fourth highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. and thousands were ordered to evacuate this week over dam failures that triggered record flooding in Midland.
Trump and Whitmer spoke by phone Wednesday, and Trump later told reporters he may visit flood-stricken Midland soon.
Trump will tour a Ford Motor Co. plant in Ypsilanti repurposed to make ventilators needed to treat COVID-19 patients, despite an order put in place by Whitmer requiring manufacturing facilities to “suspend all non-essential in-person visits, including tours” as part of the state’s battle against the spread of the coronavirus.
The visit comes a day after Trump threatened to withhold relief funding when he erroneously accused Michigan of preparing to send out absentee ballots to its 7.7 million voters in a Wednesday morning tweet. State officials, in fact, sent out applications for those who wish to request to vote by mail ahead of its August and November elections.
Trump later deleted his initial tweet and posted a new one alleging the state committed voter fraud by sending out the applications.
Asked why the president did not invite Whitmer to the event at the Ford factory, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she wasn’t aware of a “particular reason” and said “it didn’t come up.”
“The president has done quite a bit for Michigan,” McEnany said. “She should be thanking the president for all the supplies that he’s delivered to her state.”
The trip marks Trump’s third visit to a 2020 battleground state in as many weeks, as he looks to boost his political standing in a pivotal state led by a popular Democratic governor.
Before the visit to the Ford plant, Trump will meet with national and local African American leaders to discuss efforts to assist distressed communities recovering from the pandemic, according to White House spokesman Judd Deere.
The president earlier this month visited manufacturing plants in Allentown, Pa. and Phoenix, where songs usually heard at Trump’s trademark political rallies blared from the speakers. He was criticized when the Guns ‘N’ Roses version of “Live and Let Die” was played during the Phoenix event. It was left off the playlist in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania and Arizona are both considered key to Trump’s reelection chances in November,
During a visit to a medical supply distributor in Allentown, Trump’s veered into political rhetoric as he attacked “Sleepy Joe Biden,” his nickname for Vice President Joe Biden, whose hails from nearby Scranton.
Vice President Mike Pence has employed a similar strategy, visiting Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Virginia and Colorado since he began leading the White House coronavirus task force.
Trump has said he’s eager to return to the campaign trail and has accused some Democratic governors of “playing politics” in their phased plans to allow businesses and schools to reopen. With the suspension of Trump’s raucous rallies that were held weekly before the coronavirus crisis unfolded, the campaign is taking advantage of the president’s official visits to swing states that put him in front of critical voters who could determine November’s outcome.
“Americans can see that President Trump is fighting to protect their safety and reopen the economy,” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. “He is doing his job as President and critics would complain if he didn’t go visit states. Critics are the ones playing politics.”
Michigan Democrats slammed Trump’s visit, saying that it shows he is “tone deaf” to economic turmoil states are facing in the coronavirus crisis.
“He should not be going on a parade to highlight himself at a time when people are dying, when people are getting very sick, when people are continuing to lose their jobs,” said Michigan state Rep. Yousef Rabhi.
“Instead of parading around the country like he’s doing, President Trump should be in Washington trying to solve these, you know, vital issues and get us the resources that we need to be able to preserve jobs.”
The fiery exchanges between the president and Whitmer, who is widely popular at the moment, have been unsettling to some Republicans in the state, several political consultants said.
“In a crisis it’s time to put politics aside and gratuitous political shots really don’t do anybody any good,” said John Truscott, a consultant who served as a spokesman to former Gov. John Engler, a Republican. “I hope he can focus his message on these auto manufacturers and … how they mobilized at the president’s request.”
Where coronavirus isn’t: What’s kept cases officially at zero in these 200 counties?
Angering even small share of persuadable voters, he said, could cost Trump the state in the November.
“We’re talking about less than 5% of the electorate that can be swayed at this point – that’s who he’s targeting,” Truscott said. “If they’re that indecisive then they can probably be swayed by this.”
On the other hand, Truscott said, Michigan has been under some of the strictest lock down orders in the country, which have not only inspired protests at the state capitol but may also slow the state’s economic recovery in coming months.
“On an economic front, the phrase has always been that when the country gets sick, Michigan gets the flu,” Truscott said, suggesting that the Rust Belt state’s industries can take longer to recover from a downturn.
And that can make for uncertain politics.
A Fox News poll last month put Biden up 8 points over Trump among registered voters in Michigan.
Meanwhile, Whitmer has received high marks for her handling of the coronavirus outbreak, despite criticism over her strict stay-at-home orders and anti-lockdown protests. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll last week found 72% of residents approved of Whitmer’s response to the pandemic compared to 43% who said Trump was doing a good job, although the survey sample was not large enough to distinguish partisan lines. Last month, a Fox News poll found 64% of registered voters approved of the Michigan governor’s handling, which included 90% of Democrats compared with 35% of Republicans.
“Every Republican I talk to is pulling their hair out silently,” said Joe DiSano, a Democratic political consultant in Michigan. “No one’s mind is being changed here about who is exhibiting leadership. But what’s happening now is you’re starting to see a hardening of opinion.”