In 2020, President Donald Trump has found reusable scapegoats for the parade of crises that have afflicted the country — governors.
When the country faced a shortage of medical supplies during the coronavirus outbreak, Trump accused governors of being unprepared. When stay-at-home orders left millions unemployed and businesses tittering on the brink, Trump blamed governors for not letting Americans return to work. And when massive protests erupted against racial injustice, Trump said governors were siding with “antifia-led anarchists.”
For the last six months, Trump has turned governors into convenient stand-ins for his talking points, targeting them in the way he previously went after congressional leaders and the Democratic candidates for president. He has called them “weak” and “pathetic,” “jerks” and “fools.” One was a “snake” and another, he said, “doesn't have a clue.”
And on Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany boosted Trump’s message, kicking off a press briefing by blaming governors for all matters of “violence and chaos” around the country. “These states are responsible for policing their streets,” she said.
Trump’s strategy started during the pandemic and never stopped, migrating from one problem to the next. And now, as he restarts his campaign rallies amid the backdrop of both the pandemic and the protests, he’s poised to once again clash with governors.Protests against police brutality are likely to continue in some states, including Washington, while other states still suffering from the pandemic, such as North Carolina, may be hesitant to let Trump hold his desired mega-rallies.
“The president is not trying to win political support in Washington state, but he clearly thinks he can lie about events here to find victories elsewhere,” said Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who has faced Trump’s ire over both his response to the pandemic and Seattle demonstrations.
Throughout 2020, Trump has repeatedly pushed the responsibility for the pandemic and protest response largely onto the states, while simultaneously threatening to punish governors and intervene — most recently with the U.S. military — if they don’t act the way he wants. His approach gave him the latitude to blame governors when things went wrong, yet it also yielded criticism that the president was abdicating his own responsibilities.
“This is all the politics of fear,” said Martin O’Malley, the former Democratic governor Maryland. “And in the politics of fear, his calculus is that he must look like the strong guy.”
Governors — Democrats and even some Republicans — say Trump is pretending to be tough and shifting blame as he heads into his reelection campaign as a weakened candidate. But Trump’s aides and allies say the president is pushing governors to take aggressive steps to help solve what have become the most challenging crises of his term.
“There have been threats back and forth,” said Pat McCrory, the former Republican governor of North Carolina. “It’s typical of governors and presidents”
For a few weeks in May, it appeared the president was shifting his strategy when he began inviting governors —- who have earned higher marks than Trump in recent polls — to the White House for friendly chats as he promoted cooperation and bipartisan. But the insults soon started again.
Still, a handful of governors have managed to stay on good terms with Trump in part by heaping praise on him. Earlier this month, Trump hosted New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, for dinner while the president spent the weekend at his luxury resort in Bedminster, N.J. And last Thursday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, both Republicans, joined Trump at a White House event celebrating the reopening of America's small businesses.
“If you look at what I stand for and what the president stands for there’s a significant amount of disagreement on a whole range of issues,” Murphy said during a POLITICO event. “But we have been able to find common ground consistently and we need that.”
Earlier this year, Trump faced withering criticism from state and local officials that he had downplayed the coronavirus outbreak and then failed to quickly produce and ship tests and medical supplies to states. He also drew criticism for his refusal to invoke a national shutdown, eventually issuing nonbinding social-distancing guidelines after several large states, including New York and California, had already acted.
In return, the president rebuked governors over their requests for medical supplies and tests and even accused them of hoarding ventilators. He said he told Vice President Mike Pence, the leader of the White House coronavirus task force, not to call governors if they were not "appreciative" enough of his efforts.
“He’s looking for someone to blame,” said Jack Markell, the former Democratic governor of Delaware. “It’s not a surprise. His entire approach to life is to blame other people and divide. Now his target is governors.”
As Trump pushed the country to restart the economy, he declared that he could determine when states should lift their shutdown orders. But after a backlash, Trump quickly reversed course and said governors would decide when to open.
Then, once Trump’s attention turned to the nationwide demonstrations over racial injustice, he berated governors on a conference call for not using proper force to quell any looting and vandalism. “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time,” he said. “You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
Inslee, who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, has proved particularly irksome to Trump in 2020, going back to the early days of the pandemic. Most recently, Trump has blasted the Washington governor for allowing protesters to declare control of several city blocks in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, dubbed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP. The president has leaned on Inslee to call in the National Guard to clear the encampment, even threatening to send in military police himself.
“We have a governor who’s a stiff,” Trump told reporters last week. “We have a governor that is one of the most overrated politicians in the country.”
Inslee declined to comment, but Faulk, his spokesperson, said the governor has not spoken to federal officials about Trump’s threats. “The president’s tweets about Washington state reveal an interest in things other than the business of government,” he said.
Trump is going after governors at a time when polls show him lagging behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden nationally and in states key to a 2020 election victory.
In an effort to boost enthusiasm, the Trump campaign has restarted the president’s signature rallies, even as public health officials warn they aren’t safe. The push is likely to set up a showdown between Trump and governors. Already, Republican governors have been embracing the move, while Democratic governors are noncommittal at best.
“On behalf of Oklahoma, we're so excited to have you,” Stitt, the Oklahoma governor, told Trump at the White House several days before the president went to Tulsa, Okla., for his first rally since stay-at-home orders proliferated across the country.
Trump argues he’s the victim of a double standard when it comes to holding large events. He notes that Democratic governors haven’t tried to stop massive demonstrations against police brutality in their states, even when the events lack social distancing.
“Whatever the rules are going to be for larger gatherings, they should be applied consistently — otherwise it just fuels more confusion and cynicism,” said Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor of Minnesota.
Trump is planning to headline other rallies in Florida, Arizona and North Carolina in the coming weeks, before heading to other battleground states including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, in the coming months. Not every governor shares Stitt's enthusiasm.
Trump has been feuding for weeks with the Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, after he refused to guarantee the president a packed arena at the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, citing coronavirus restrictions. “The governor’s a little backward there, a little bit behind,” Trump complained earlier this month.
Cooper's office has not been contacted about any potential Trump rallies in North Carolina, his office said. But a spokesperson did note that indoor gatherings in the state are currently limited to 10 and outdoor gatherings to 25.
“Public health experts have been clear that large gatherings are among the worst settings for viral spread of Covid-19,” said Dory MacMillan, Cooper’s press secretary.