WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday suggested there was a correlation between Democratic leadership of states and the scope of the coronavirus outbreak, hinting that he may support the withholding of federal aid to governors seeking to respond to the pandemic.
He offered no evidence for that assertion.
“It is interesting that the states that are in trouble do happen to be blue,” the president said, referencing the color traditionally associated with the Democratic Party. “It is interesting.” Yet he also said that he had spoken to several Democratic governors and wanted to help states.
That left one of the most pressing issues now facing Congress clouded in confusion.
The president made his contradictory comments during Thursday’s briefing of the White House coronavirus task force. They came in response to a question from a journalist about a potential aid package to states that have seen their coffers ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. One estimate holds that shortfalls could total $500 billion because of vanishing tax revenue.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., derided the notion of “blue-state bailouts,” suggesting that states would be better served by declaring bankruptcy. Federal bankruptcy laws, however, do not allow states to discharge their debt obligations through that mechanism.
McConnell’s suggestion was countered with intense criticism, led by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who scolded the senator for his “obsessive political bias and anger.”
US President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on April 23, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Trump is in the midst of the debate, struggling to describe how the matter would be resolved. He said during Thursday’s briefing that he’d “spoken to Mitch” and other senators about meeting states’ needs, which he said would be “the next thing we’re going to be discussing,” an apparent reference to a subsequent round of congressional relief aid. He offered no details about what shape those discussions had taken thus far, or how he might direct those talks in the coming days.
He did seem to take McConnell’s side, arguing that Democratic states were trying to use coronavirus relief funds to fix financial problems.
“Some states have not done well for many years,” Trump said, “long before the virus came.” He singled out Illinois as having “a lot of problems” that predated the pandemic. He did not say what those problems were, but gun violence in Chicago — the largest city in Illinois — has been a favorite target of Trump and some others on the right.
The governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, is a Democrat, and has clashed with Trump in recent weeks. So has the governor of neighboring Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, another Democrat. During his spat with Whitmer, Trump tied federal aid to politics. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” he said.
Loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, meant to help small businesses that have been forced to close during the pandemic, have been more generously distributed to Republican-led states than to Democratic-controlled ones.
As he continued to discuss the issue of state funding, Trump went so far as to suggest that, past problems aside, Democratic leadership has exacerbated the disease. “The states that seem to have the problem happen to be Democrat,” Trump said. He appeared to be referring to California and Washington state, where the coronavirus first took hold in the U.S. and where the pandemic has been to a large extent contained.
On the opposite coast, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut emerged last month as the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States. Thousands have died in the New York City metropolitan region.
Those three states, like the two states on the West Coast, are led by Democratic governors. And all five states voted heavily against Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
While such assertions are not supported by evidence, they could nevertheless be deployed as arguments against paying out billions of dollars in state aid.
There are, of course, reasons having nothing to do with politics that contributed to states like New York and California serving as hotspots, population density and high rates of international travel foremost among them. And there have been outbreaks in Republican-led states, including South Dakota and Florida.
Even as he suggested that Democratic states were somehow more primed for a pandemic than ones helmed by Republican leaders, Trump also argued that it was not necessarily incumbent on the federal government to help them because, in doing so, the Trump administration would be addressing underlying issues outside the purview of a coronavirus relief package.
“New York and New Jersey were in a lot of trouble long before the plague came,” Trump said. The criticism was a departure from his frequent praise of Cuomo, not to mention New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a progressive firebrand with whom Trump claims to have developed an improbably close working relationship.
Even as he appeared to cast blame on Democratic states — both for their handling of the coronavirus crisis and what he sees as the chronic problems of coastal liberalism — he said that he had spoken to Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. That would indicate that he is at least open to their entreaties. The question is whether those entreaties could outweigh those of McConnell.
The president said that helping states was his next major relief item. “If we can help states, we’re always going to help states,” Trump said at one point. “Now, there’s different ways of helping states. Some ways are better than others.”
He did not say what those better ways were.