WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump argued last week that the death toll from the coronavirus was actually not so bad. All you had to do was not count states that voted for Democrats.
“If you take the blue states out,” he said, “we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at. We’re really at a very low level.”
It was as jarring as it was revealing, indicative of a leader who has long seemed to view himself more as the president of Red America rather than the United States of America. On the pandemic, immigration, crime, street violence and other issues, Trump regularly divides the country into the parts that support him and the parts that do not.
While presidents running for re-election typically look at the map through a partisan lens, they ostensibly take off such a filter when it comes to their duties to govern, or at least make the effort to look like they do. But that is an axiom Trump has rarely observed as he rails against “Democrat cities” and “badly run blue states.” And he has sought to punish them with tax policies and threats to withhold federal funding.
“President Trump views and uses politics as a popularity contest, rewarding those he considers personally loyal to him,” said David Lapan, a former senior official in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security who is now at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “This isn’t high school, and lives are at stake, often with tragic results.”
The contrast with his predecessors in moments of national crisis could hardly be more stark. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush invited the Democratic senators from New York, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, to the Oval Office to collaborate on recovery.
When superstorm Sandy slammed into New Jersey just days before the 2012 election, President Barack Obama broke off campaigning to travel to the ravaged state where he stood side by side with GOP Gov. Chris Christie to pledge solidarity in recovery efforts.
But these are more partisan times, and Trump is a more overtly partisan figure. Through months of the pandemic, he has at various moments lashed out at Democratic governors, blaming them for any failures. His comment Wednesday about not counting deaths in blue states reflected an effort to lay responsibility on his opposition, and he repeated it at a campaign rally Thursday night in Wisconsin.
“It’s so unworthy of a president,” Tom Ridge, a GOP former governor of Pennsylvania and later secretary of Homeland Security under Bush, said Thursday. “It’s beyond despicable. It’s soulless.” He added that the virus was an equal-opportunity killer. “It’s almost unspeakable in the middle of the pandemic to try to divide the country on a political basis when COVID-19 is really bipartisan.”
Schumer, now the Senate Democratic leader, went to the floor to denounce Trump. “What kind of president looks at the number of dead citizens in the country he is supposed to lead — and in attempt to glamorize himself — dismisses every American who died in a state that didn’t support him politically?” Schumer said. “What a disgrace. It’s monstrous. Not a shred of empathy. Not an ounce of sorrow. What kind of president do we have?”
In a statement Thursday, Sarah Matthews, a White House spokeswoman, said Trump’s policies “uplift all Americans” and that he fights “for people of all backgrounds,” including in fighting the coronavirus. “But it’s no secret some Democrat-run states and cities have failed to create economic growth, secure their streets or protect the most vulnerable against this virus,” she said.
Trump came to office making the same sorts of promises of bipartisanship that other presidents have. “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans,” he declared in his victory speech in 2016. “And this is so important to me.”
But once in office, he relished warring with Democratic governors and mayors. He attacked blue states for “sanctuary” policies resisting cooperation with federal immigration crackdowns, and he has sought to penalize states like deep-blue California for environmental policies that go beyond the standards he has set. More recently, he threatened to take funds from four “anarchist jurisdictions” with Democratic mayors who in his view have not done enough to suppress protests.
Trump set the tone early with tax cut legislation that passed in 2017 and limited the federal deduction for state taxes, effectively raising taxes on many high-income earners in blue states and creating what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the time called “an economic civil war.” Trump subsequently changed his own residence from blue New York, where the tax change hit hard, to the redder Florida, where there is no state income tax.
“Trump has never seen himself as president of the United States,” said Stuart Stevens, a top strategist to Mitt Romney when he was the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 and now an outspoken critic of Trump. “He’s a gang leader, and you are either in his gang or you are the enemy.”
It did not go unnoticed that Trump remained all but silent for weeks about the wildfires that have been ravaging California, Oregon and Washington, all states that voted against him and almost certainly will again. When he finally did make a one hour and 50 minute visit to California on Monday to be briefed on the natural disaster, he was asked if he cared about blue states.
“Let me just tell you about your nasty question,” he snapped. He then told how he immediately declared a national emergency in California. Indeed, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, later during that visit praised the president for his assistance before carefully raising their disagreement on climate change.
But by the next day, Trump was again bashing “Democrat-run states.”
“Why do you keep talking about Democrat states?” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked during a town hall-style meeting in Philadelphia. “They’re American states.”
“No,” Trump replied. “The Democrat-run states are the ones that are doing badly, George.”