Governor tells president: 'Incredible spikes' could 'wipe out tribal nations'

File: New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on March 18, 2020, during a news conference about the coronavirus pandemic on the floor of the state House of Representatives in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

The Associated Press

Governors are trying to get what they need from Washington, and fast. But that means navigating the disorienting politics of dealing with Trump

President Donald Trump was told Monday that more resources are needed to combat the coronavirus pandemic in Indian Country.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said there are “'incredible spikes" of coronavirus cases in the Navajo Nation and that the virus could "wipe out" some tribal nations, according to a recording of a call between Trump and the nation's governors obtained by ABC News.

"I'm very worried, Mr. President," Governor Lujan Grisham said. She asked the president for a 248-bed U.S. Army combat support hospital from the Department of Defense to be based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

"We're seeing incredible spikes in the Navajo Nation, and this is going to be an issue where we're going to have to figure that out and think about maybe testing and surveillance opportunities," Grisham said.

"The rate of infection, at least on the New Mexico side — although we've got several Arizona residents in our hospitals — we're seeing a much higher hospital rate, a much younger hospital rate, a much quicker go-right-to-the-vent rate for this population,” she said. “We're seeing doubling in every day-and-a-half.”

The president replied on the call: “Wow, that's something. "Boy, that’s too bad for the Navajo nation – I've been hearing that."

Montana Governor Steve Bullock said there is an urgent need for more testing so that the state can engage in contact tracing, finding the people who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive.

“Literally we are one day away, if we don’t get test kits from the C.D.C., that we wouldn’t be able to do testing in Montana,” the governor said.

Indian Country Today syllabus: 190 cases reported in Indian Country with 10 deaths as of Monday. The number of positive tests on the Navajo Nation has reached 148, according to the Navajo Department of Health and Navajo Area Indian Health Service, in coordination with the Navajo Epidemiology Center. There are now a total of five confirmed deaths related to COVID-19.

The president said that testing was not a problem. “I haven’t heard about testing in weeks,” he said on the call. “We’ve tested more now than any nation in the world. We’ve got these great tests and we’re coming out with a faster one this week.”

Facing an unprecedented public health crisis, governors are trying to get what they need from Washington, and fast. But that means navigating the disorienting politics of dealing with Trump, an unpredictable president with a love for cable news and a penchant for retribution.

Republicans and Democrats alike are testing whether to fight or flatter, whether to back channel requests or go public, all in an attempt to get Trump's attention and his assurances.

At stake may be access to masks, ventilators and other personal protective gear critically needed by health care workers, as well as field hospitals and federal cash. As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., put it, "I can't afford to have a fight with the White House."

Underlying this political dance is Trump's tendency to talk about the government as though it's his own private business. The former real estate mogul often discusses government business like a transaction dependent on relationships or personal advantage, rather than a national obligation.

"We are doing very well with, I think, almost all of the governors, for the most part," he said during a town hall on Fox News on Tuesday. "But you know, it's a two-way street. They have to treat us well."

On a private conference call Thursday with Trump, governors from both parties pressed the president for help — some more forcefully than others.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, urged Trump to use his full authority to ramp up production of necessary medical equipment, according to an audio recording of the call obtained by AP. But Trump said the federal government is merely the "backup."

"I don't want you to be the backup quarterback, we need you to be Tom Brady here," Inslee replied, invoking the football star and Trump friend.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, meanwhile, was lavish in his praise.

"We're just so appreciative, but we really need you," Justice told Trump.

In an interview Thursday night on Fox News Channel's "Hannity," Trump groused, "Some of these governors take, take, take and then they complain."

Of Whitmer, he said, "All she does is sit there and blame the federal government." And he said Inslee "should be doing more," adding, "He's always complaining."

California's Gavin Newsom, usually a fierce Trump critic, is among those who have gone out of their way not to lay the federal government's failings during the coronavirus outbreak at Trump's feet.

Newsom complimented Trump for "his focus on treatments" for the virus and thanked him for sending masks and gloves to California. He said the president was "on top of it" when it came to improving testing and said Trump was aware "even before I offered my own insight" of the state's need for more testing swabs.

It's an approach informed by Newsom's past dealing with Trump during devastating wildfires. While Trump always has approved California's requests for disaster declaration following fires, just days into Newsom's tenure last year Trump threatened the state's access to disaster relief money.

Trump has kept a close eye on the coronavirus media coverage and noted which local officials were praising or criticizing him, according to three aides who spoke on condition on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the president's private deliberations. In conversations, Trump has blasted Whitmer and praised Newsom, they said.

There's no evidence that Trump has held up a governor's request for assistance for personal or political reasons. Still aides say it's understood that governors who say nice things about the federal response are more likely to be spared public criticism from the White House or threats of withheld assistance.

Trump approved California's request for a statewide disaster declaration within hours of Newsom asking on Sunday. Trump also has sent a Naval medical ship as well as eight field hospitals. New Jersey will be getting four field hospitals after a phone call between the president and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who has not criticized the president during the crisis.

Republican governors are navigating particularly difficult waters, knowing that any comments viewed as critical of the president could anger Trump's loyal fans in their state. Some Republicans spoke out against Trump's talk of reopening the U.S. economy by Easter in mid-April. Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, head of the nonpartisan National Governors Association, called the White House messaging "confusing."

GOP Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, who lead on the early action, described himself as "aligned" with Trump, but then also noted the state's model did not show cases peaking until May 1. DeWine appealed to Ohioans to continue to stay home to limit the spread of the virus.

Those close to DeWine say he understands the importance of picking his battles.

"I think he recognizes this unprecedented once-in-a-century situation is bigger than politics," said Ryan Stubenrauch, a former DeWine policy and campaign staffer.

It's unusual to see a president and governors publicly feuding and name-calling while their country teeters on the brink of disaster. In past recent crises, presidents and state leaders have gone out of their way to show that politics plays no role in disaster response, and to project the appearance of cooperation. In 2005, as Republican President George W. Bush's administration received criticism for its handling of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, there was never a sense he was withholding help for personal reasons, said former Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

"I never had to worry that President Bush would be angry with me, personally, so he wouldn't help the people of my state," she said. "I knew he wasn't a petty leader."

In this moment, some governors have zigzagged between compliments and confrontation, knowing the president responds to both. When Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., was frustrated last week that Trump had not stepped up the federal response to hard-hit regions, he tried a counterintuitive approach, going on cable news to praise Trump for changing his tone about the severity of the virus.

In a call to the White House, Cuomo delivered the same grateful message privately, according to two officials with knowledge of the conversation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly talk about the private discussions.

Trump later expressed happiness to aides and advisers that Cuomo had said such nice things about him, according to two White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing.

A week later, when Cuomo delivered an urgent, frustrated plea for ventilators Tuesday, he didn't mention Trump by name. Shortly after, a White House official said 4,000 more ventilators would be shipped to New York.

But later that day, Trump vented to aides, complaining that Cuomo made it seem like Washington had abandoned him, according to those White House officials and Republicans.

His anger broke through during the town hall. When Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the coronavirus response, was describing testing problems and mentioned New York's high transmission rate, Trump interjected, trying to push Birx to criticize Cuomo: "Do you blame the governor for that?"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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