President Donald Trump said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is “always complaining” after he criticized the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s frequent criticism of Trump’s “slow” response earned her the nickname “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told the president the nation needed a “Tom Brady” not a “backup quarterback” in addressing the global pandemic. A day later, Trump referred to Inslee as a “failed presidential candidate” who is “constantly chirping.”
Those governors, all Democrats, have been outspoken in their criticism of Trump amid frustrations over a lack of testing kits and personal protective equipment. But in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz, also a Democrat, has held back, toeing a fine line between pushing his own administration’s response to the pandemic while not criticizing Trump’s.
“I can only make a judgment as governor that I believe is in the best interest, the health and safety of Minnesotans and stick with that,” Walz said during a recent coronavirus press briefing. “I certainly … have not had open clashes with the administration. We’ve worked together, we have been grateful for the work we are doing together.”
Walz, a first-term governor and former member of Congress, has taken actions that go far beyond any push from the federal government. He’s used executive emergency powers to close down schools, businesses and most public places and asked Minnesotans to stay home unless absolutely necessary. But his relationship with the federal government has also never been more important, as states compete for a limited number of supplies to respond to the coronavirus.
In states where governors have pushed back, like Washington and Michigan, Trump has dangled the prospect of withholding federal aid. He told Vice President Mike Pence, a former governor of Indiana who has been leading the administration’s response to the virus, not to return their calls. “You know what I say? If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump said.
“Given how vindictive the president is toward some of the other governors who seem to be giving him a hard time publicly, Governor Walz is doing exactly what he should, which is maximize what he can get for Minnesota,” said former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, whose time in office overlapped two years with the Trump administration. “The extent that that’s influenced at all by the relationships that the governor has with the president, the vice president and with others, that becomes a critical variable.”
So far, Walz’s approach has been more Minnesota nice: avoiding direct confrontation while also signaling frustrations. He has voiced concerns about the lack of testing kits, masks and ventilators flowing to states, saying he wished the federal government would fully utilize the Defense Production Act, a wartime law that allows the government to direct industrial production.
At times, he’s had to directly contradict the message coming from the White House, suggesting it was “not helpful” when the president initially said he wanted to reopen businesses by Easter. But he did not mention Trump by name.
In return, Trump hasn’t issued blistering attacks on Walz like he has other governors, commenting on Minnesota’s stay-at-home order for the first time Friday to coincide with lockdown protests at the governor’s residence. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Trump tweeted, issuing identical tweets about protests planned in other states. Walz said he called Trump directly to ask what the state should be doing differently to put people back to work and not compromise their health. He didn’t get a response, Walz said.
“I just don’t have time to try to figure out why something like that would happen,” he said. “I just have to lead from Minnesota’s perspective.”
While former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty disagreed politically with Democratic President Barack Obama, he was careful about his messaging as the federal government doled out stimulus relief during the recession, said Tom Hanson, who led the effort under Pawlenty.
“Even Governor Pawlenty was circumspect about criticizing the president when we are trying to accept and administer these programs that people need,” he said. “I was aware of it at the time, and wanted to make sure we did nothing to complicate things at the federal level.”
But behind the scenes, Walz has also been working with governors of six Midwestern states with stay-at-home orders to create a regional plan, announced last week, to reopen the economy. They’re following the lead of governors in the Northeast and on the West Coast, who are also banding together, a move Trump initially suggested in a tweet amounted to “mutiny.”
For citizens, the pandemic has been a rushed civics lesson on executive power, featuring public spats between state executives and the commander in chief of the nation over who has the final authority on decisions like opening and closing businesses during a public health crisis. At one point, Trump said the president has “ultimate authority,” but in a call with governors last week, his tone shifted, announcing new federal guidelines to help states lift social-distancing measures. He told the governors, “You are going to call your own shots.”
Walz doesn’t gain anything politically by attacking a president who nearly won Minnesota four years ago, said University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson. And it could hurt his ability to continue work with a divided state Legislature.
“He’s very solution-oriented about what’s best for Minnesota without also using his bully pulpit to blast the president,” Pearson said. “There’s nothing helpful about that for him in terms of political support from Republicans in his own state, both leaders and the public, and there’s nothing to be gained in terms of substantive resources.”