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Trump allies warn against feud with swing state governor

In a pool photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich., Monday, March 30, 2020. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, Pool)
In a pool photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich., Monday, March 30, 2020. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, Pool)

LANSING, Mich. – President Donald Trump's allies are trying to contain a politically risky election year fight with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as he struggles to balance presidential politics with a global pandemic in one of the nation's most important swing states.

Both sides have tried to de-escalate the feud this week, although Trump's supporters in particular sought to downplay tensions that ratcheted up over the weekend when the Republican president unleashed a social media broadside against Whitmer, a Democrat who had been critical of the federal government's response to the coronavirus outbreak. Trump has clashed with other Democratic governors as well, but he saved his most aggressive insults for the first-term female governor, who is considered a leading vice presidential prospect for his opponent.

“Everyone should be shedding the partisanship and coming together,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in an interview, suggesting that some of Trump's criticism had been mischaracterized.

“I am rooting for Gov. Whitmer,” said McDaniel, who lives in Michigan. “I think she’s done good things. ... I just didn't like her trying to lay every problem at the president’s feet.”

The backpedaling underscores the nature of the dispute, which comes seven months before Election Day in a state that could make or break Trump's reelection bid. Michigan is an elite presidential battleground that has historically celebrated bipartisanship and pragmatism while rewarding candidates who rally behind key institutions in crisis. Four years ago, Trump eked out a win by about 11,000 votes out of more than 4.5 million cast in the state.

Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and McDaniel's uncle, lost his home state of Michigan in 2012 after opposing federal efforts to rescue the automotive industry. And Trump, by unleashing a personal attack against the state's governor in the midst of a pandemic, has sparked new fears that he, too, may be hurting himself and his party on the eve of the next election.

Michigan Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Republican, said he raised concerns about Trump's political attack with the administration directly.

“I did relay to the administration that I didn’t think it was helpful and why play that game,” Mitchell said in an interview. “These are times when the American people look for leaders. Leaders don’t whine. Leaders don’t blame."

He said he raised similar concerns with Whitmer's office, suggesting that her criticisms about the federal response have not necessarily been accurate.

"This is not the time where we need more drama in this country," Mitchell said.

While political fights are common for Trump, Whitmer's rise in Democratic politics has been defined by her decision usually not to attack the president.

Whitmer, a 48-year-old longtime state legislator and attorney, ran for governor as a pragmatic liberal, emphasizing her bipartisan work while pledging to fix Michigan’s crumbling roads. She rarely talked about Trump before the election or after. When she gave Democrats' response to Trump's State of the Union speech in February, she pivoted from his impeachment to issues concerning working-class voters, including health care, and made only passing references to his behavior.

But as a frequent guest on national media in recent weeks, Whitmer has criticized the federal response while pleading for ventilators, personal protection equipment and test kits as Michigan has emerged as one of the hardest-hit states. Republicans were especially upset after she implied during a Friday radio interview that the Trump administration was intentionally withholding medical supplies from Michigan.

In a weekend tweet storm as the coronavirus death toll surged, Trump called her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer," charging that she was in “way over her head” and “doesn't have a clue" about how to handle the health crisis. Two days earlier, Trump said publicly that he had instructed Vice President Mike Pence, the leader of the White House's pandemic response, not to call “the woman in Michigan."

Trump has since deleted the tweet. And in a press briefing on Tuesday, he said he had a productive conversation with Whitmer earlier in the day.

The governor, too, has backed away from the feud this week as the state grapples with the escalating crisis. Michigan reported more than 7,600 cases of coronavirus and 259 deaths as of Tuesday.

In a statement, Whitmer declared that her “No. 1 priority is protecting Michigan families from the spread of COVID-19."

“I don’t care about partisan fights or getting nicknames from the president," she said.

Yet Trump's initial fiery response — and the scramble to contain it — is nothing if not consistent. The former New York real estate magnate has showed he cannot help but respond with force when criticized. As first lady Melania Trump noted four years ago, “When you attack him he will punch back 10 times harder.”

In this case, however, allies quietly note that he did not consider the likely political ramifications in a state he badly needs to win in November.

“Anyone with half a brain can see that attacking an incredibly popular governor who's showing real leadership during a crisis is not a net plus,” said John Anzalone, whose firm handles polling for Whitmer and former Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign.

Biden has stood up for Whitmer repeatedly in recent days. On Tuesday evening, Biden's senior adviser Anita Dunn reinforced Biden's support for the governor, who she said “is fighting hard for her state and setting an example for leaders across the nation.”

“Joe Biden prays that Donald Trump can find the strength to live up to her example,” Dunn said.

Meanwhile, it was difficult to find a Michigan Republican willing to defend Trump's behavior.

A spokeswoman for Republican state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey had this to say when asked about Trump's declaration that Pence should not call Whitmer: “The Senate majority leader believes everyone is coping with an unusual amount of stress during this time."

The clash was particularly sensitive because of the evolving nature of gender politics in the Trump era. Suburban women, including many Republicans, have increasingly fled Trump's GOP, enabling major Democratic victories across the country in 2018 and 2019.

His decision to single out Whitmer came the same week he attacked another high-profile Michigan woman, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, whom he jabbed for not working fast enough to help the government produce ventilators.

“Always a mess with Mary B,” Trump tweeted.

Trump's team hopes to repair the relationship with suburban women before Election Day, at least somewhat, in a state that matters more than most. Democrats will not make it easy.

"It's sad but not shocking that President Trump has attacked Gov. Whitmer for doing her job. He clearly has a problem with strong, competent women," said Stephanie Schriock, president of the group EMILY'S List, which helps elect women who support abortion rights.

Meanwhile, Republican Bill Schuette, whom Whitmer defeated in 2018, praised Trump’s leadership managing the pandemic but also said “we need to lay down the politics" in response to questions about the president's divisive comments and her performance during the crisis.

“This is not a time for partisanship,” Schuette said. "This is a time of working together in an open, honest fashion. That's what people expect and deserve, particularly in a time of crisis.”

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Peoples reported from New York.

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