Pandemic politics shadowed President Donald Trump’s trip to Michigan on Thursday to highlight lifesaving medical devices, with the president and officials from the electoral battleground state clashing over federal aid, mail-in ballots and face masks.
Trump visited Ypsilanti, outside Detroit, to tour a Ford Motor Co. factory that had been repurposed to manufacture ventilators, the medical breathing machines governors begged for during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But his arrival came amid a long-running feud with the state’s Democratic governor and a day after the president threatened to withhold federal funds over the state’s expanded vote-by-mail effort. And, again, the president did not wear a face covering in front of the press corps despite a warning from the state’s top law enforcement officer that a refusal to do so might lead to a ban on Trump’s return.
All of the Ford executives giving Trump the tour were wearing masks, the president standing alone without one. At one point, he took a White House-branded mask from his pocket and claimed to reporters he had worn it elsewhere on the tour, out of public view.
“I did not want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” Trump said.
For a moment, he also held a clear shield in front of his face.
A statement from Ford said Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman, “encouraged President Trump to wear a mask when he arrived” and said the president wore it during “a private viewing of three Ford GTs from over the years” before removing it.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said mask wearing isn’t just Ford’s policy but it’s also the law in a state that’s among those hardest hit by the virus. Nessel said if Trump refused to wear a mask Thursday “he’s going to be asked not to return to any enclosed facilities inside our state.”
“If we know that he’s coming to our state and we know he’s not going to follow the law, I think we’re going to have to take action against any company or any facility that allows him inside those facilities and puts our workers at risk,” Nessel told CNN. “We just simply can’t afford it here in our state.”
Trump has refused to wear a face mask in public, telling aides he believes it makes him look weak, though it is a practice that federal health authorities say all Americans should adopt to help slow the spread of the virus.
Ford said everyone in its factories must wear personal protective equipment, including masks, and that its policy had been communicated to the White House. At least two people who work in the White House and had been physically close to Trump recently tested positive for the virus. Trump is tested daily; he said Thursday he tested negative that morning.
An executive order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requires factories to suspend all nonessential in-person visits, including tours, though Nessel said her office would not bar Trump.
The Republican president and Whitmer have clashed during the coronavirus outbreak about her criticism of the federal government’s response to the state’s needs for medical equipment, such as ventilators, and personal protective gear, such as gloves, masks and gowns. Trump on Thursday offered veiled criticism of Whitmer and other Democratic governors, suggesting they were proceeding too slowly in reopening their states’ economies.
The day before, Trump threatened to withhold federal funds from Michigan after its secretary of state mailed absentee ballot applications to millions of voters. Trump first tweeted — erroneously — that the Democratic state official had mailed absentee ballots to Michigan voters. He later sent a corrected tweet specifying that applications to request absentee ballots had been mailed and seemed to back off his funding threat.
Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016. He insists mail-in voting is ripe for fraud, although there is scant evidence of wrongdoing.
“We don’t want them to do mail-in ballots because it’s going to lead to total election fraud,” Trump said Thursday. But then he allowed for some exceptions, including himself.
“Now, if somebody has to mail it in because they’re sick, or by the way because they live in the White House and they have to vote in Florida and they won’t be in Florida. But there’s a reason for it, that’s OK.”
Trying to signal to the nation that life is returning to normal, the president had begun traveling again, with all of his initial trips to states that will be hotly contested in November’s election. Campaign advisers have grown increasingly worried about Michigan, believing the president’s attacks on Whitmer have not worked and the toll the virus has taken in the Detroit area, particularly among African Americans, will prove costly politically.
Trump, at a roundtable with African American supporters in front of a sign with his slogan for reopening the economy, “Transition to Greatness,” noted low minority unemployment numbers before the pandemic and also pointed to his administration’s work on criminal justice reform.
The president’s advisers have become convinced that of the three Rust Belt states that Trump took from Democrats in 2016, Michigan would be much more difficult to win again than Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
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