As the coronavirus pandemic has deepened, Democratic governors bearing the heaviest burdens are increasingly wary that if they complain too loudly about the federal response they will anger Donald Trump and risk losing critical support during a life-or-death crisis.
The latest evidence of the delicate, sometimes impossible line that these governors have been forced to walk came Tuesday, when the president took swipes at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a televised town-hall-style program on Fox News.
“I watched Gov. Cuomo [today] and he was very nice,” the president said of the man steering the state hardest hit by the virus. Cuomo had, moments earlier, conducted a press conference in which he scoffed at how insufficient the administration’s help in procuring ventilators had been.
“He had a choice… He refused to order 15,000 ventilators,” Trump said, referencing a recent column by Betsy McCaughey, a hardened Trump supporter and longtime health-care policy crusader on the right. “It says that he didn’t buy the ventilators in 2015 for a pandemic, established death panels and lotteries instead.”
Trump would go on to insist he was not blaming Cuomo. But the magnanimity was short-lived. “It’s a two-way street,” Trump said of having the feds help states with a coronavirus response policy. “They have to treat us well, too.”
Under normal circumstances, such a screed would be cast aside as a classic bit of Trumpian shit-talking and thin-skinness. But these aren’t normal times. And Trump’s comment resonated not only for how callous it seemed but also for how manufactured the evidence was that he was citing.
A source on Gov. Cuomo’s team told The Daily Beast they believed McCaughey was referencing a 2015 New York government health report on ventilator guidelines for her column. The report’s data on ventilator need was based on numbers gathered for the 1918 influenza pandemic. The report’s guidelines went on to say that it was “not possible to accurately calculate the impact of a severe pandemic, including ventilator need” and that it is “likely that the approach used overestimates the number of ventilators that would be needed during a severe pandemic.”
President Trump “obviously didn’t read the document he’s citing—this was a five-year-old advisory task-force report, which never recommended the state procure ventilators—it merely referenced that New York wouldn’t be equipped with enough ventilators for a 1918 flu pandemic,” said Dani Lever, director of communications for Cuomo. “No one is, including Mr. Trump.”
For Trump, it was just the latest in an on-again, off-again relationship that has developed between him and the governor of the state he used to call home. The relationship between the two has changed from week to week, if not day to day, vacillating from gracious words to open hostility, depending on the news cycle. Such work-relationship dysfunction may seem abnormal, especially in the midst of a deadly, economy-tanking pandemic. But for those close to the president, it was standard operating procedure.
“If you’re good and respectful to [Trump], he will treat you the same—it’s that simple,” said one senior White House official. “The president has always said that he fights back when he needs to, and the situation with [Cuomo] is no different. If you keep that in mind, their sort of seesaw relationship during [coronavirus] doesn’t come as a surprise.”
Another person who had spoken to the president earlier this month recounted that one day Trump had mentioned in a meeting how well Cuomo was behaving and handling the crisis, only to, two days later, start bashing the governor in a different private conversation as “nasty.”
A source on the New York governor’s team said that Cuomo has tried to shrug off these temperamental swings over the last two weeks, saying Trump’s mood changes so often that it is hard to keep track. Another individual familiar with the relationship said it’s become expected that the pair will collaborate one day and the president will take a swipe at the governor for not doing enough the next, usually in the hours after the governor’s morning press conference.
Cuomo, the individual close to the governor noted, has praised the White House in addition to criticizing it on occasion. For example, when the administration facilitated the construction of hospitals and sent the Army Corps of Engineers to the state to help, Cuomo was gracious. And in press conferences, he has repeatedly thanked the president and noted that he and Trump speak often about what New York needs to battle the public-health epidemic. At other times, though, Cuomo has blasted the federal government, not necessarily Trump himself, for the delay and lack of much-needed essential medical supplies that health-care workers need to treat coronavirus patients.
That was true on Tuesday, when Cuomo said the state is in need of 30,000 ventilators and was getting insufficient help from the federal government to acquire more. The Trump administration said later that it was in the process of shipping about 4,000 ventilators to New York. But the governor’s office is still desperate for more and has called on the president to implement the Defense Production Act and order private companies to make more for the open market.
That Cuomo has made sharper demands than others is not lost on the White House. Nor is it lost as to why. His state has faced the brunt of the coronavirus crisis. And on Tuesday evening, Deborah Birx, a key member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, said at a White House press briefing that people who’ve left New York City recently should self-quarantine for 14 days. “To everyone who has left New York over the last few days, because of the rate of the number of cases, you may have been exposed before you left New York,” Birx said. “Everybody who was in New York should be self-quarantining for the next 14 days to ensure that the virus doesn’t spread to others.”
Trump, who was at the briefing, declined to say if he’d given Cuomo advance warning about the pronouncement. “We’re talking to them about it,” the president told reporters at the White House.
But while Trump’s attention seems to be focused on parrying with Cuomo, other Democratic governors have felt the pressure to not get on his bad side as well. One of those governors has been Jay Inslee of Washington, whose state preceded New York in having to deal with a massive wave of coronavirus infections and deaths. This month, the president called Inslee a “snake” and even instructed his vice president “not to be complimentary” of him. For weeks, the governor and president did not speak, though Tara Lee, a spokesperson for Inslee, told The Daily Beast that they connected over the weekend for the first time, during which Trump told Inslee that he was not getting a medical boat he had requested but would be “getting field hospitals.”
For Democrats working for governors on the frontlines of the crisis, the lesson taken from that episode and from Cuomo is that there are two administrations to navigate: the one doing the actual crisis response, and the one that is responsive to Trump’s id.
“It is really unclear how many decisions are made by Trump versus the actual team there. Everyone is negotiating the challenge of telling the federal government where they are falling behind versus making sure we meet the needs of our citizens by getting federal help, knowing that you risk it if you anger Trump,” said an aide to a Democratic governor involved in handling the coronavirus spread. “It’s a balance that all governors are dealing with right now. Well, not all governors. Democratic governors.”
As they deal with that balance, Democrats say they can already see potholes ahead. Trump has said in recent days that he wants to “re-open” the economy soon—perhaps by Easter—in hopes of avoiding an economic depression. But there is little the president can do to compel states to end their decrees that people stay in place or that all non-essential businesses close. Should they not bow to Trump’s demands, the fear goes, it will set up a situation in which he may once again use the bully pulpit to, well, bully.
“He’s been trying to kick the blame to the states... and I think this maneuver [to re-open the economy] is the same,” said one Democratic operative who works on gubernatorial campaigns. “It’s him being able to say: ‘Hey, I opened it up, it’s not my decision that your state kept the economy closed. It’s not on me that you lost your job. Blame your governor.’”