Why is Trump Shooting Himself in the Foot?

March 30, 2020

So the Easter Bunny will have to stay at home after all. The Mad Scientist in the White House finally listened to his health-policy experts and gave up on his loony idea to see “packed churches” on Easter Sunday. Chalk up one for the good guys; Donald Trump has made at least one rational decision in dealing with this plague. Still, Trump is also engaging in remarkably very self-destructive behavior, which seems almost guaranteed to hurt his chances for re-election.

It’s one thing for the President to lash out at Jay Inslee and Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governors of Washington and New York. Trump doesn’t care that both governors are widely admired for their leadership in dealing with this crisis. New York and Washington are deep-blue states that Trump doesn’t have a chance of winning in November. You can understand why he doesn’t worry about offending voters in those states.

But why is the president attacking Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan? In 2016, Michigan was a critical win for Trump, along with two other Midwestern states, Wisconsin and Ohio. You’d expect Trump to be currying favor with Michigan voters, by promising to help them as much as possible. That’s particularly the case since Whitmer, a Democrat, is taking forceful action to confront the coronavirus threat, and she has very clearly articulated her state’s needs.

Gov. Whitmer/photo: Getty-Bill Pugliano

Instead, Trump has belittled Whitmer as “that woman”, not even bothering to name her (or perhaps he forgot her name?) The president has said that he won’t call the governor — to discuss her urgent requests for assistance — because Whitmer has not been “appreciative” (along with Cuomo and Inslee).

This kind of tough-guy rhetoric has played very well at Trump’s rallies, because the Base loves it. However, the Godfather-style talk may anger many Michiganders, who are worried about possible shortages of medical supplies. Detroit is suffering a large outbreak of the virus.

Even Trumpistas living in Michigan may be less than thrilled by Trump’s approach. If they have not yet figured this out, they will soon realize that the coronavirus is quite non-partisan. The plague doesn’t care whether people are Democratic or Republican. When their relatives and friends begin to die, Michigan Trump supporters will want the President to help their state, not trash their governor.

Trump’s searing attack on General Motors is even more bizarre. The company is a major employer in Michigan, a symbol of the state’s industrial might and a source of pride for many people living there.

Furthermore, GM volunteered to help the government marshal industrial resources to fight the virus. GM agreed to reconfigure an auto parts plant so that it could produce ventilators. Setting up a partnership with Ventec Life Sciences, a ventilator manufacturer, GM shelled out $250 million to convert the plant. Within a couple of weeks, the venture was rapidly gearing up and getting ready to start production.

Meanwhile, GM and Ventec negotiated with federal officials, asking them to specify how many units they wanted to order. GM also asked the government to reimburse it for the $250 million in conversion costs, which seems reasonable, but federal officials balked.

Then, on Friday, March 27, out of the blue, the President lambasted GM and its CEO, Mary Barra, in a scorching tweet. Trump criticized GM of dragging its feet and trying to gouge the government. GM executives were stunned. The company has said that it intended to produce the ventilators at cost.

With the nation facing critical shortages of medical equipment, one would have expected Trump to praise GM. After all, the company is answering the administration’s call for industry to join in a national effort to ramp up production of desperately needed machines. Instead, Trump disparaged a company that was both a Michigan icon and a willing partner from the business community.

Trump’s capricious attack on GM may cause other CEOs to hesitate before agreeing to pitch in. Why should they run the risk of bad publicity? On Sunday, the ever-mercurial President changed his tone, saying, “GM is doing a great job!”, but the damage was done.

No one has ever accused Donald Trump of being a long-term thinker, but this is very peculiar behavior. With the economy cratering and deaths from the virus soaring, you’d expect Trump to be taking steps that would help him in November.

Unless, of course, Trump has other plans for finessing the election problem…. like declaring a state of emergency?

A Wall Street Democrat. Security analyst (financial institutions), former lawyer and banker.

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