Vice President Mike Pence portrayed his boss, President Donald Trump, as a leader who has reached out across the aisle to help during the coronavirus pandemic.
“President Trump marshaled the full resources of the federal government and directed us to forge a seamless partnership with governors across America in both parties,” Pence said during his speech Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention.
Clearly, the federal government has provided supplies and funding to states led by both parties in response to the pandemic, and Pence himself has held regular conference calls with governors in both parties. But Pence was speaking about the actions of Trump, not his own.
Pence’s comments ignored Trump’s multiple feuds, frequently with Democratic governors, about state-federal responsibilities and the pandemic response.
A Trump campaign spokesperson sent us a list of dozens of teleconferences and meetings that Trump or Pence had with governors, including Democrats such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer. In March, Trump sent a letter to governors thanking them for “stepping up to help America confront this unprecedented global pandemic.” The campaign pointed to actions by administration officials to brief governors about making available supplies, such as testing swabs, utilizing the National Guard, and reopening state economies.
Trump argued with governors over COVID-19 supplies, tests
Early in the pandemic, Trump traded barbs with governors, especially over where the responsibility lay in securing medical supplies for the states.
After declaring a national emergency over the health crisis on March 13, Trump directed governors to order their own ventilators, respirators and supplies, saying the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.” Governors in both parties shot back that Trump’s stance, and the lack of coordination from Washington, left states bidding against one another and the federal government for access to critical equipment.
Cuomo said it was akin to competing on eBay with all the other states plus the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Whitmer and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and then chair of the National Governors Association, were among those pleading for better coordination from FEMA to ensure that supplies were distributed based on need.
“The lack of any centralized coordination is creating a counterproductive competition between states and the federal government to secure limited supplies, driving up prices and exacerbating existing shortages,” they wrote in a joint March 30 op-ed in The Washington Post.
A couple of days earlier, Trump said during a White House briefing that governors should be “appreciative” toward him and the federal government.
Speaking of Pence, Trump said: “He calls all the governors. I tell him — I mean, I’m a different type of person — I say, ‘Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan.’” On Twitter, Trump said Whitmer was “way in over her head, she doesn’t have a clue.”
In April, Trump said that testing “is a local thing” and that states should turn to commercial labs for help. After he was blasted by governors from both parties, Trump said the federal government would step up efforts to get testing supplies.
Governors also called on Trump early on to enact the Defense Production Act, a law that gives the president authority to expedite the supply of materials for national defense, in order to ramp up production of personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. While the president did eventually invoke the act to produce ventilators and medical equipment, he delayed efforts to do so and did it sparingly. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called for him to broaden its use.
Trump’s justification for slow-rolling the act was that he didn’t want the government to intervene in the private sector.
“You know, we’re a country not based on nationalizing our business,” Trump said at a coronavirus task force press briefing on March 22. “Call a person over in Venezuela, ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out? Not too well.”
In April, Trump said that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, had reopened Georgia “too soon.” In May, he criticized Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, for keeping parts of his state closed that Trump said were “barely affected.”
Trump said in mid-April that it was up to him — not the governors — to decide when to reopen states on lockdown.
Some governors bypassed the federal government to work together
Frustrated with the responses from the Trump administration, some governors teamed up with one another to get needed supplies.
In May, a coalition of governors from seven Northeastern states, including New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Delaware, joined together to buy personal protective equipment and ventilators and create a unified reopening strategy.
As late as July, some governors were calling on the feds for help and not getting what they needed. There were shortages of testing supplies, as well as personal protective gear. Washington state asked for 4.2 million N95 respirators. It received a bit under 500,000. It asked for about 300,000 gowns. It got about 160,000.
On Aug. 18, a bipartisan group of governors — five Democrats and five Republicans — announced they would be partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation to create a national testing strategy in the absence of federal action. The 10 states are Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Utah, Arkansas, Rhode Island and Virginia. Their goal is to buy and deploy 5 million COVID-19 antigen tests.
Feuds between Trump administration and states continue
This summer, the Trump administration reduced the federal share of National Guard assistance to the states to help with pandemic response, despite pleas from governors in both parties. An Aug. 3 memo said that the federal government would no longer continue to pay for 100% of the tab for most states and that it would be reduced to 75% as of Aug. 21.
And when the CDC unveiled new testing guidelines that downplayed the need to test people who don’t show symptoms — about 40% of those infected — Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom said that they wouldn’t follow it. Asymptomatic people are thought to be significant spreaders of the virus. Both governors at times praised certain responses by the Trump administration to help their states respond to the pandemic.
Pence said, “President Trump marshaled the full resources of our federal government from the outset. He directed us to forge a seamless partnership with governors across America in both political parties.”
Trump and top administration officials have communicated with governors of both parties for months in meetings, phone calls and written communication. But Pence’s comment ignores that Trump has feuded with governors over state-federal responsibilities, supplies and policies for shutting down or reopening. Trump also has suggested a lesser role for the federal government and said that the handling of COVID-19 should be left to the states.