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Last year, when a faraway country was under attack, President Donald Trump saw an opportunity. Thousands of Ukrainians had died in a Russian proxy war, and Ukraine needed help. To others in the U.S. government, this meant America had to act. But to Trump, it meant power. He realized that by refusing to meet with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, he could pressure Zelensky to make a statement, which Trump could use in his reelection campaign. Trump could even withhold aid that Ukraine desperately needed.
In February, at his trial in the Senate, Trump got away with that abuse of power. Now, as thousands of Americans die in a global attack from the novel coronavirus, he’s abusing his power again. But this time, Trump isn’t threatening a foreign government. He’s threatening the governors of his own country.
Trump put the squeeze on Zelensky in a phone call last July. “We do a lot for Ukraine,” he said. He complained that the relationship wasn’t “reciprocal,” and he asked for a “favor.” Today, Trump talks the same way about governors who plead for masks, ventilators, and coronavirus tests. “It’s a two-way street,” he told Fox News on March 24. “They have to treat us well also.” On March 27, as the death toll from the virus rose, Trump demanded that governors be more “appreciative.” On April 2, he issued a warning to those who expressed disappointment in him. “I guess they assume I don’t watch them,” he said. “But I watch very closely.”*
For the most part, Trump has gotten what he wanted. In conference calls, governors have praised and thanked him for sending supplies to fight the virus. They sound like Zelensky, who, in his phone call with Trump, sucked up to get aid. Trump brags about the praise he gets from governors, in the same way he still brags about the praise he got from Zelensky. “Some of you were at the call yesterday where I spoke with the governors,” Trump boasted to reporters on March 20. “Every one of them was very impressed with what we’ve done.”
When Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, extorted Zelensky, they had a specific request. They wanted Zelensky to announce an investigation of Trump’s likely opponent in the 2020 election, former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump hasn’t sought such an explicit quid pro quo from the governors. But when they give him the praise he demands, he uses that praise the same way he had hoped to use the announcement from Zelensky: to hurt Biden and help himself. “Joe Biden has a Democratic problem,” Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters at the White House on March 26. “He’s got the Democratic governors of the two largest states, Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo, collaborating with and complimenting the White House’s efforts.” On Monday, Trump used the daily White House coronavirus briefing to air a campaign-style video of Cuomo, Newsom, and other governors thanking him for aid.
Governors who don’t play ball face retaliation. First come the threats. On March 26, after a conference call with governors, Trump said they were all properly appreciative, except for one “little wise guy.” Without naming the offender, Trump added menacingly: “He’s usually a big wise guy. Not so much anymore. We saw to it that he wouldn’t be so much anymore.”
Then come the verbal attacks. The first governor besieged by the pandemic was Jay Inslee of Washington. Trump called him a “snake” and a loser. Then Trump mocked Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, as “Half” Whitmer. He accused others, including J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, of “blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings.” A week ago, Trump claimed that some governors, in order to get on TV, were lying about not having enough tests or masks. “They always say that, because otherwise you’re not going to put them on,” he told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
When Trump refused to meet with Zelensky, he sent Vice President Mike Pence instead. Against governors, Trump plays the same game. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump pouted. In the next days, he said that if they wouldn’t “give this administration credit,” “I don’t have to deal with them.” He specifically blacklisted Inslee (“I don’t call the governor of Washington now”) and Whitmer (“Don’t call the woman in Michigan”). When these governors had to be spoken to, said Trump, “I get Mike Pence to call.”
But Trump has a more powerful card he can play against the governors: a huge federal supply of masks, ventilators, and other emergency equipment. On April 2, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, rebuked governors who expected direct access to this stockpile. “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile,” said Kushner. “It’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.” Trump agreed. “The federal government needs it too, not just the states,” he argued. “It’s a federal stockpile. We can use that for states, or we can use it for ourselves.”
It seemed inconceivable that the president of the United States might withhold aid from governors in a pandemic, as he had withheld aid from Ukraine in a war. But this week, Trump implied that he could do just that. On Monday, he told reporters he had “absolute power” to decide when states could reopen their economies. “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total,” he declared. The next day, a reporter asked Trump whether he might take away federal funding from governors who disobeyed him. Trump answered the question like a mob boss. “I don’t want to say that. They’ll listen,” he replied. “They need the federal government, not only for funding—and I’m not saying take it away—but they need it for advice. They’ll need, maybe, equipment that we have. We have a tremendous stockpile that we’re in the process of completing. We’re in a very good position.” He concluded: “No, the governors will be very, very respectful of the presidency.”
On Twitter, Trump threatened the governors more explicitly. “Cuomo’s been calling daily, even hourly, begging for everything … new hospitals, beds, ventilators,” Trump wrote.* “I got it all done for him, and everyone else, and now he seems to want Independence! That won’t happen!” An hour later, Trump tweeted: “Tell the Democrat Governors that ‘Mutiny On The Bounty’ was one of my all time favorite movies. A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!”
Trump has abused power since the day he took office. He sabotaged the Russia investigation by firing the person in charge of it, trying to fire the next person in charge of it, coercing witnesses, and replacing his attorney general with a lackey who dismissed the final report. Then, a day after extinguishing that investigation, Trump extorted Zelensky in their infamous phone call. Now, just two months after the Senate refused to punish him for his extortion of Ukraine, he’s using the federal emergency stockpile to threaten governors. No one is safe from this despot. There’s no crisis he won’t exploit, and no weapon he won’t use.
Correction, April 17, 2020: This post originally misstated the dates of two Trump press conferences. They were on March 27 and April 2, not March 28 and April 3. It also misstated the date of Trump’s tweet threatening governors. It was on Tuesday, not Wednesday.
For more discussion of this week’s political news, listen to Thursday’s Political Gabfest.
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