Trump’s allies warning against feud with Michigan governor, who could become Biden running mate

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.

Whitmer, who delivered the Democratic response to Trump's State of the Union address earlier this year, has also been mentioned as a possible running mate for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic White House nominee. Biden has already committed to choosing a woman to fill out his presidential ticket.

Both sides are trying to de-escalate the feud.

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“Everyone should be shedding the partisanship and coming together,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in an interview when asked about Trump’s attacks. “I am rooting for Governor 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.”

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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 hurt himself and his party on the eve of the next election.

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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.”

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Mitchell 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.

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.”

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Trump has since deleted the tweet. And in a press briefing 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.”

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.