Donald Trump
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Americans have become so jaded by the emanations coming from our president that we can lose sight of just how depraved he is. Each step goes a little frrther than the last, testing the bounds of decency and public tolerance. Meanwhile, the political press gingerly moves toward using words and phrases it might never have dared about previous administrations, without going so far as to admit the whole truth for fear of overstepping its own boundaries.

Trump’s use of crucial medical supplies in a pandemic to cajole and punish governors who aren’t adequately nice to him is only the latest, most jawdropping example. Trump has been taking advantage of the power of federal procurement to try to enforce the silence of governors critical of his incompetent response to coronavirus: He has threatened to withhold essential equipment that will mean life or death for thousands of people in those states.

On March 25th at Vox, editors gave an Aaron Rupar piece the title “Trump commits to helping blue states fight the coronavirus — if their governors are nice to him.” True—but even this description undersells the outrage of the situation.

A few days later Trump made it even more explicit, with specific reference to Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan:

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday made a startling claim that medical supply vendors are “being told” to avoid sending badly needed gear to her state in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

During an interview with local station WWJ News Radio, Whitmer detailed how her state has had difficulty in securing supplies to help hospitals cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients.

“What I’ve gotten back is that vendors with whom we’ve procured contracts — they’re being told not to send stuff to Michigan,” she said. “It’s really concerning, I reached out to the White House last night and asked for a phone call with the president.”

This is not an unsourced claim by the governor. Trump readily admitted it:

“I don’t know if she knows what’s going on, but all she does is sit there and blame the federal government,” Trump said.

“Michigan is a very important state, I love the people of Michigan … but she is a new governor who has not been pleasant,” he said.

“We don’t like to see the complaints,” he added.

And he didn’t stop there.

“He calls all the governors,” Trump said. “I tell him, I mean, I’m a different type of person. I say Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington, you’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan.”

“If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump said.

Michigan’s health department is reporting 3,657 COVID-19 cases and 92 deaths. In Washington, there have been 3,700 cases, according to the state, and 175 deaths.

“We have done a hell of a job,” Trump said. “The federal government has really stepped up.”

Trump’s message to governors was that he wants “them to be appreciative.”

Everyone in mainstream journalism has had to walk a fine line here. The always excellent Greg Sargent at the Washington Post wrote a good piece saying as much as one could say as a responsible journalist: that Trump was tying aid to personal grievances, that he had said the things he had said. Sargent also added:

As the AP notes, there is no evidence this has directly influenced Trump’s treatment of states. Still, the very idea that he’d be preoccupied with it at a moment like this is utter madness.

And beyond his rage at being criticized, the possibility simply cannot be dismissed that Trump sees his explicit hand-washing of responsibility for the mounting death toll in certain parts of the country as something that will appeal to parts of the country that he perceives as his own.

It’s true. We don’t necessarily have direct evidence so far that Trump is actively withholding supplies from blue states. But that’s only because  governors have been insufficiently groveling before him in spite of his negligence, likely because they still need serious help from the federal government during an unprecedented crisis. In other words, Trump has enormous leverage over them.

Aaron Blake, also at Washington Post, put it this way:

President Trump is a commander in chief dealing with a coronavirus outbreak in which many difficult decisions have to be made. And on Friday, he seemed to suggest some of those decisions could be made according to who has run afoul of him personally.

Appearing at the daily White House briefing, Trump disclosed that he has told Vice President Pence, who is leading the coronavirus task force, not to call the governors of Michigan and Washington state because those governors had been critical of Trump and the federal response.

When they’re not appreciative to me, they’re not appreciative to the Army Corps, they’re not appreciative to FEMA, it’s not right,” Trump said.

It’s clear that editors at major newspapers are doing their best to state precisely what there is evidence for without jumping to the obvious conclusion.

Still, writers and editors shouldn’t be afraid to call this exactly what it so obviously seems to be: blackmail by the president of the United States in a pandemic crisis, with the threat of killing thousands of Americans over a fit of political and personal pique.

It’s not as if we weren’t warned. On twitter, Esquire‘s Charles Pierce highlighted this piece of argument from the impeachment inquiry by Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan:

“What would you think if, when your governor asked the federal government for the disaster assistance that Congress has provided, the President responded, ‘I would like you to do us a favor.’ I’ll… send the disaster relief once you brand my opponent a criminal.”

He got away with blackmailing a foreign ally in the middle of a war. Why wouldn’t he do it to domestic governors he considers his political enemies in the middle of a pandemic?

He almost certainly is. It’s just that careful, responsible journalists won’t say it yet.

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Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.