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Flatter or fight? Governors seeking help must navigate Trump

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke during a news conference against a backdrop of medical supplies at the Jacob Javits Center that will house a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York on Tuesday.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke during a news conference against a backdrop of medical supplies at the Jacob Javits Center that will house a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York on Tuesday. John Minchillo/Associated Press/Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — At first, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker tried to play nice. He limited criticisms of the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and asked for medical supplies through official channels.

But nothing came, so he went on television. The first-term Democrat blasted the Trump administration Sunday on CNN for failing to help states obtain masks, gloves and other protective gear.

It got President Trump’s attention. After a Twitter feud and some mudslinging (Pritzker compared Trump to a “carnival barker”), the two got on the phone Monday, and Trump promised Illinois 250,000 masks and 300 ventilators.

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.

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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 Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Democrat of Michigan, 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 private business.

“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 with Trump Thursday, governors from both parties pressed the president for help — some more forcefully than others.

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

“We’re just so appreciative, but we really need you,” Justice said.

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.

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.