‘Ask me nicely’: Trump demanded loyalty from governors for help, says book
In the aftermath of devastating storms that knocked out power to tens of thousands of people in Connecticut in August 2020, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) called the White House seeking federal help. Hours later, then-President Trump called back.
“There’s something you want to ask me about FEMA?” Trump said, according to Lamont’s recollection. “Well, ask me nicely.”
The anecdote, reported by the New York Times journalists Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns in their forthcoming book, “This Will Not Pass,” is just one of a series of Trump’s interactions with governors that struck many state executives as blatant departures from the norms of cooperative governing.
The book, obtained by The Hill prior to its release on Tuesday, depicts Trump as a mafia don, demanding loyalty from supplicants and political opponents alike, by turns using the largest bully pulpit in the world to beat them into submission and cajoling them in private to offer support.
When Trump called California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to discuss a cruise ship moored in San Francisco Bay, on which passengers were sick with the coronavirus, Trump agreed to allow the ship to dock so passengers could be treated. Trump said he would be watching, for “the reciprocity,” according to the book.
“He used to say that even privately — that was one of his favorite words,” Newsom recalled later to authors Martin and Burns. “It says everything and nothing at the same time.”
In another call with governors revealed by the book, after Trump said he would cut back federal funding for all but two states that deployed the National Guard to battle the coronavirus pandemic, he told governors who wanted the full costs covered: “You have to call me and ask me nicely.”
Trump’s unorthodox and at times boorish approaches to politics alarmed many governors, who told the authors his uneven and sometimes disinterested concern with the coronavirus pandemic made battling the virus more difficult.
“President Trump’s comments, his rhetoric and his almost flippant attitude in some contexts made it difficult for a governor like me to really push the seriousness of the medical emergency that we’re in,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), no liberal himself, told the authors.
The coronavirus pandemic was another excuse Trump used to even political scores.
When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) ordered his state reopened, contrary to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trump took the opportunity to blast his onetime ally in public. Privately, Trump dispatched then-press secretary Kayleigh McEnany to demand Kemp rescind his order, the book reports.
Republican governors, frustrated by the lack of direction from a White House under the control of their own party, took to holding private conference calls outside of the administration’s earshot to strategize and share best practices to combat the pandemic.
On a visit to the White House early in the pandemic, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) was taken aback when Trump showed him a room adjoining the Oval Office crammed with MAGA gear.
“They literally hand you a shopping bag, and you took anything you’d like,” Murphy recalled to the authors.
In a call with governors after nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, Trump demanded they crack down to restore order in their states. His rant was so unhinged that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) called her husband into the room to listen in, the book said.
“You can’t make this shit up,” Brown told her husband.
Across the country, Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) called a security guard into the room to listen in on the same call.
“You gotta sit here and listen to this because I think the president of the United States is having a nervous breakdown or something, and it’s scary,” Mills recalled telling the guard, according to the book.
In the days after Floyd’s death, as the virus still raged across the nation, Trump was planning his return to in-person events with a rally in Tulsa, Okla., where he hoped for a packed house to show off his electoral strength. Dining at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., he shared his plans with Murphy and his wife.
Trump was aware that the rally was scheduled for Juneteenth, a holiday that carried extra weight amid the racial justice protests. But he did not seem to grasp the significance of the holiday, which commemorates the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery in the United States.
Can you imagine “changing the day of the rally in Oklahoma to accommodate these people?” Trump asked the Murphys. “Have you ever heard of such a ridiculous thing?”
Spokespeople for the governors quoted in the book, contacted for this story, either confirmed their recollection of the events or declined to deny those recollections.
On the other hand, some in the Trump administration saw a political benefit to the violence that raged in American streets, including clashes in Portland, Ore., between federal agents and antifa activists. As Brown, the Oregon governor, worked a back channel to then-Vice President Mike Pence to get federal agents out of Portland, a Trump administration official sounded an alarming warning to Brown’s top aide, according to the book.
“Not everyone wants to de-escalate this,” the official told Nik Blosser, Brown’s chief of staff.
Trump showed his lack of enthusiasm for containing the virus later that summer, as he tried to push North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) to allow the Republican National Committee to hold his renominating convention as normal, without requiring masks or social distancing inside the arena in Charlotte.
The book reports that Cooper told Trump he was worried about the delegates who would celebrate Trump’s renomination, many of whom were older, almost all of whom would travel from other parts of the country to come together.
“Aren’t you worried about them, particularly?” Cooper asked Trump.
“No, no, I’m not,” Trump replied.
“I’ve never had an empty seat, from the day I came down the escalator,” Trump told Cooper, recalling his campaign announcement at Trump Tower in New York. “I don’t want to be sitting in a place that’s, you know, 50 percent empty or more.”
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