Michigan Gov. Whitmer: States Won't Open 'Via Twitter' | WYPR

Michigan Gov. Whitmer: States Won't Open 'Via Twitter'

Apr 14, 2020
Originally published on April 16, 2020 1:37 pm

President Trump has claimed to have the authority to "open up the states" once the threat of the coronavirus subsides.

State governors — and constitutional experts — disagree.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, the state with the third-highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S., told All Things Considered on Tuesday that science and medical advice will guide her decisions on when to ease stay-at-home restrictions.

Here are selected excerpts of that interview:

Can I just get your response to the president saying he gets to decide when states open up?

I was asked this yesterday at my press conference and I explained, the government's not going to be open via Twitter. We're going to have to make decisions based on the best science, the best medical advice and what's in the best public health of the people of our individual states. We've had to act unilaterally at the state level, and we're probably the best ones to be able to make a decision when it's time to safely reengage our economies. And I'm hopeful that my colleagues are listening to the best medical minds they have in their states, and we're all thinking about doing it in the safest, smartest way.

African Americans account for almost 40% of COVID-19 deaths in your state and only make up about 13% of Michigan's population. I know you have a task force addressing racial disparities led by your lieutenant governor, who's African American. But right now, while people are dying, what can you specifically do to help black people who are so disproportionately affected by this disease?

Well, we've done a lot to help give people some relief. We have a campaign that is absolutely focused on communicating with communities of color. We are focused on making sure that people don't lose their home or get evicted in this time. I've issued a number of emergency orders so that people who are going to struggle the most are going to have the protections that they need.

We have been working incredibly hard on that outreach component because we know that education is critical and working with the leaders of our churches, especially in and around Detroit. They've stepped up to help administer to their flocks who need counsel and need faith now more than ever, but can't congregate. And so we've undertaken a number of efforts to make sure that we're reaching out.

And I impaneled this task force because I think this is something Michigan has been leading on. We're one of only three states that early on started making this racial data available. And I think other states should follow suit so that we as a nation can recognize the unique challenges that people of color are confronting when we have a pandemic like this.

Listen to the full audio version of this interview on All Things Considered.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump says he has total authority to decide when the country should reopen. That's false, as a constitutional scholar explains in another part of the program. The president softened his message today, saying he would work with governors to find the right time to dial back stay-at-home orders.

Gretchen Whitmer is Michigan's governor and a Democrat. Her state has the third-highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. When I spoke with her earlier, I asked for her take on Trump's messaging.

GRETCHEN WHITMER: We're going to have to make decisions based on the best science, the best medical advice and what's in the best public health of the people of our individual states. We've had to act unilaterally at the state level, and we're probably the best ones to be able to make a decision when it's time to safely reengage our economies. And I'm hopeful that my colleagues are listening to the best medical minds they have in their states, and we're all thinking about doing it in the safest, smartest way.

SHAPIRO: Some of your governor colleagues on the West Coast and East Coast are creating consortiums of states to jointly figure out when their regions should reopen. Is there anything similar happening in the Great Lakes region where you are?

WHITMER: Yeah. Actually, we've had a dialogue going on for quite a while - Gov. Pritzker of Illinois, Gov. Walz of Minnesota, Gov. Evers of Wisconsin. I talk regularly with Gov. DeWine of Ohio, and we're pursuing a conversation about what we would want to make sure we're all seen. And we know that COVID-19 doesn't respect party line, and it doesn't respect state line. And that's why we've all got to share our best information and move strategically together wherever possible.

SHAPIRO: You've been vocal in your criticism of the federal government's response, and President Trump has taken notice. He called you that woman from Michigan during a White House briefing. He said governors should be more appreciative. So explain to us how you walk that line of staying in the White House's good graces so you get the help your state needs but also pointing out where the response has fallen short.

WHITMER: Well, I think it's important that governors speak truth to power. And frankly, I haven't said something that other governors on both sides of the aisle haven't said. You know, we've all been, I think, trying to navigate a situation where there's not enough support in terms of PPE from the national stockpile, where we've been having to try to outrun one another in the race to get PPE for our nurses and our doctors. Having a patchwork where some governors are taking action, others aren't, means that we're going to confront COVID-19 longer than we should, that more lives will be lost, and more people will get sick. And I think that's a terrible thing.

That being said, my duty is to work with whomever is in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the people of Michigan. We've worked very well with the vice president. I've talked to the president individually. We got to remember that the enemy is COVID-19. It's not one another.

SHAPIRO: Your state has the eighth-largest population in the U.S. but the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases. So what do you think Michigan got wrong in the early response to the virus?

WHITMER: I don't know that we got it wrong. I know that, you know, as an international destination and as a airport that was bringing in, you know, people that were suspected COVID-19 patients - that that added to, I think, what was going to be a challenging situation for us. I think that, you know, we've been on the front end of taking aggressive action - pulling kids out of schools, shutting down bars, making restaurants dine out and, ultimately, the stay-home order. We've been on the front end on all of those.

But I do know that we've had a lot of people who live below the Ellis (ph) standards. And being poor and having a health condition because you've got lack of access to health care or a job that can sustain you has been a very complicating factor. And I think that's part of what we see playing out in Louisiana to Michigan.

SHAPIRO: Well, that might speak to the number of hospitalizations and deaths - the lack of health care and the underlying conditions. But the fact that it has the third-highest number of cases in the country must have to do with something more than having a big international airport.

WHITMER: No, it does. And we - you know, we've got - we've seen a lot of bad information promulgated from the get-go. I don't think that people took the risk of COVID-19 as seriously as we should've as a nation. I think that it made our jobs more difficult.

SHAPIRO: African Americans account for almost 40% of COVID-19 deaths in your state and only make up about 13% of Michigan's population. Now, I know you have a task force addressing racial disparities led by your lieutenant governor, who's African American. But right now, while people are dying, what can you specifically do to help black people who are so disproportionately affected by this disease?

WHITMER: Well, we've done a lot to help give people some relief. We have a campaign that is absolutely focused on communicating with communities of color. We are focused on making sure that people don't lose their home or get evicted in this time. Then I impaneled this task force because I think this is something Michigan has been leading on. We're one of only three states that, early on, started making this racial data available. And I think other states should follow suit so that we as a nation can recognize the unique challenges that people of color are confronting when we have a pandemic like this.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to change gears and talk about the presidential race for just a moment because Michigan is an important swing state that helped President Trump win the White House in 2016. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has said he is considering you for vice president. You've been governor of Michigan for about 18 months. Would you be willing to give up that job if Biden chooses you as his running mate?

WHITMER: You know what? I - it's been a wild conversation. I was thrust into the national spotlight during this pandemic - and not in the most flattering way - by the current occupant of the White House. And then it's been elevated by my friend Joe Biden.

You know, I am in the job that I worked incredibly hard to get to. This is where I wanted to be and where I think there's a lot of work that needs to be done. That being said, it's absolutely flattering to be considered amongst a massive group of women leaders across the nation. And I don't know that I've got much more to add on that at this point.

SHAPIRO: Well, Biden cannot be out campaigning right now, but do you think he should be more visible? What role do you think he should be playing during this pandemic?

WHITMER: So I was glad to see that he put out a thoughtful plan for what he would do if he was in the White House. I think that that's something that people are eager to understand. We have to learn something from this and to see a vision for what we could do and should do to ensure that we're never confronting this again, I think, is the - the greatest thing you can give someone is hope. Trying to figure out how to campaign in this time is difficult and unprecedent (ph). But I think at the end of the day, when the chips are down, people want to know that they've got leaders who get it, who know they can - they have a plan and who can give them some hope.

SHAPIRO: As I'm sure you're aware, a woman named Tara Reade accused Biden of sexual assault in on-the-record interviews. These allegations have been reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. And Biden's campaign has denied them. As someone who has spoken publicly about your own experience surviving sexual assault, what do you think should happen now? And does it give you pause to support Biden, given these allegations?

WHITMER: Well, I think women should be able to tell their stories. I think that it is important that these allegations are vetted, from the media to beyond. And I think that, you know, it is something that no one takes lightly. But it is also something that is, you know, personal. And so it's hard to give you greater insight than that, not knowing more about the situation.

SHAPIRO: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, thank you for speaking with us today.

WHITMER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And tomorrow on the program, the view from a Republican governor, Mike Parson of Missouri.

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