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Week In Politics: President Trump's Response To The Coronavirus Crisis


This weekend, more mixed messages and confusion from the White House. President Trump sent the leaders and residents of three states scrambling to understand what it would mean if they were under federal quarantine. That lasted for a few hours until the CDC issued a nonbinding travel advisory for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to be implemented by the governors of those states. And that's been a theme of the coronavirus crisis, the president passing the buck to governors. Here he is at the White House on Friday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The governors have been very gracious for the most part, I would say - a couple that aren't appreciative of the incredible job. They have to do a better job themselves. That's part of the problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to talk about all this. Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So be appreciative. It's an extraordinary message to impart in the middle of a pandemic. What's the rest of the message about the division of labor between states and the federal government?

LIASSON: Well, the president's message to states has been contradictory. He says he's a wartime president, which suggests that he'll use all sorts of extraordinary powers that the federal government has to mobilize the country to fight the virus. But, sometimes, he sounds like he's leading from behind. He's told the states, quote, "The federal government is not a shipping clerk." He has said that - to the governors on Twitter, quote, "We are there to back you up should you fail." And when governors have asked or mayors have asked for supplies like ventilators, he's dismissed those claims and say they - say, for instance, that New York doesn't really need all the ventilators it's asking for. And he's been reluctant to actually use the Defense Production Act. He said it would be like nationalizing industries, turn the U.S. into Venezuela. But as experts tell us - that the act is meant to allocate resources and avoid bottlenecks, not have the federal government take over the means of production.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to play another clip from Friday's Task Force briefing. The president is talking about Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer.


TRUMP: Michigan - all she does is - she has no idea what's going on. And all she does is say, oh, it's the federal government's fault. And we've taken such great care of Michigan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's that about?

LIASSON: Well, he has lashed out at governors he feels have criticized him, particularly the governor of Washington state. He's called him a snake. Now the governor of Michigan, who he often refers to as that woman from Michigan - he's come up with a demeaning nickname for her. Her name is Gretchen Whitmer. He has called her Gretchen Halfwitmer.

But the president's attacks, according to Governor Whitmer, are actually hurting her ability to buy equipment. She claims that vendors with whom Michigan had contracts are being told not to send supplies to Michigan. She said she's reached out to talk to the president, asked for a phone call. But he has said that if governors don't treat him right, he won't call them. And he said he told the vice president, quote, "Don't call the woman in Michigan."

So is he just lashing out at his critics, or is this a strategy to get ready to make the argument that whatever goes wrong - equipment, shortages, deaths, economic pain - is the fault of the Democratic governors, not him?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk a little bit more about the Defense Production Act. The president's been pushed to use it to ensure an adequate supply of medical equipment. Friday, he said he had but then that he may pull it back. It's very confusing.

LIASSON: Very confusing. But what we do know is that, finally, the federal government says it is contracting with manufacturers to start making ventilators like GM, for instance. But those ventilators will not be available until later next month or early May.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, and I just want to turn to, briefly, the election because there is one. There's a former vice president in Delaware who's angling to inherit all this.

LIASSON: He is. And, you know, the president is in a box. It doesn't really matter what Joe Biden does right now. But the president wants to run reelection on a good economy and a roaring stock market and low unemployment. But he can't solve the economic problem until he solves the virus problem. And yes, if you're a reality TV producer, you want the series finale to be, quote, "packed pews on Easter Sunday." But first, if - you have to worry about opening the economy up too soon because if people get sick and die, that hurts the economy, and that hurts President Trump's reelection chances, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR national...

LIASSON: So stay tuned for tomorrow. New guidelines coming.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.