‘Rather than say thank you, she calls me a white supremacist’: The story of Trump’s obsession with Gretchen Whitmer

Famously deriding her as ‘that woman from Michigan’, the president is now complaining that Ms Whitmer has blamed him for inspiring and inciting right-wing violence

Andrew Naughtie
Friday 23 October 2020 16:58 BST
Donald Trump's obsession with Gretchen Whitmer

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has helmed her state since 2018, has been a thorn in Donald Trump’s side since the coronavirus outbreak spread across the US in the spring.

And even after she was saved from a plot to kidnap, “try” and even kill her, he has continued to complain about what he sees as her ingratitude and intransigence.

“I don’t know anything about the plot,” he told 60 Minutes in an interview to be broadcast this weekend, “but I can tell you this: it was our Justice Department that is the one that’s helping her … and you know people aren’t so – they’re not liking her so much because she’s got everybody locked down.”

Reiterating as before that the Michigan lockdown is “unconstitutional”, Mr Trump refused to entertain the idea that he had “gone after” Ms Whitmer – even as he called her lockdown “a disgrace”.

Ms Whitmer and Mr Trump locked horns early in the pandemic, at a point where the US was facing its first dramatic surge in cases and personal protective equipment (PPE) was in desperately short supply.

Read more: How many US presidents have lost a second term?

The governor – who had already criticised the halting federal response to the pandemic – requested that the federal government declare a major disaster in Michigan to help the state handle the outbreak. Mr Trump was already angry at her public complaints, as he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity at the time.

“We've had a big problem with the young – a woman governor,” he said. “You know who I'm talking about – from Michigan. We don't like to see the complaints.

“She doesn't get it done, and we send her a lot. Now, she wants a declaration of emergency, and, you know, we'll have to make a decision on that. I don't know if she knows what's going on, but all she does is sit there and blame the federal government.”

Ms Whitmer replied gamely. “Hi, my name is Gretchen Whitmer, and that governor is me,” she tweeted.

“I've asked repeatedly and respectfully for help. We need it. No more political attacks, just PPEs, ventilators, N95 masks, test kits. You said you stand with Michigan — prove it.”

Mr Trump pressed on with his grievance against her, tweeting the next day about “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” and later fixating on an incident where Ms Whitmer’s husband was caught asking to launch his boat on Memorial Day against lockdown regulations – something the governor explained as “a failed attempt at humour”.

But things came to a head in late April after the president tweeted two words: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!

What followed in the coming weeks was a sign of things to come: unmasked protesters barging into the state capitol in Lansing, many of them heavily armed, demanding that Ms Whitmer’s lockdown restrictions be lifted.

Mr Trump’s response was to call on Ms Whitmer to relent. “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” he wrote. “These are very good people, but they are angry.”

It has since transpired that among those “very good people” were at least some of the men allegedly involved in the recent plan to kidnap Ms Whitmer.

Mr Trump’s words since the would-be kidnappers were disrupted make an unedifying contrast with the seriousness of the plot – and with Ms Whitmer’s own reaction to it when it was revealed.

On that day, the governor stood behind a podium to give the most chilling public address of her career. “When I put my hand on the bible and I took the oath of office 22 months ago,” she said to camera, “I knew this job would be hard. But I will be honest: I never could have imagined anything like this.”

Naming the various federal and state agencies, police and officials who helped arrest the plotters, she expressed her gratitude: “As a mom with two teenage daughters and three stepsons, my husband and I are eternally grateful to everyone who put themselves in harm’s way to keep our family safe.”

Donald Trump missed or ignored this part of her address. Tweeting shortly after her speech was broadcast, he slated Ms Whitmer for the “terrible job” she has done as governor and boasted that the plot was foiled by “my justice department and federal law enforcement”.

“Rather than say thank you,” he wrote, “she calls me a White Supremacist.”

This is not exactly what Ms Whitmer said, but she made no bones about holding the president accountable for giving succour to violent hate groups. “Just last week,” she said of Mr Trump’s first debate with Joe Biden, “the president of the United States stood before the american people and refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups like these two militia groups.

“Stand back and stand by, he told them. Stand back and stand by. Hate groups heard the words not as a rebuke but a rallying cry and a call to action.

“When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight. When our leaders meet with and encourage domestic terrorists, they legitimise their actions and they are complicit. When they contribute to hate speech, they are complicit.”

Mr Trump’s ire at this accusation has rankled him far more than the plot itself, and his umbrage at the governor’s supposed ingratitude has dominated his public reaction to the story.

He has also refused to back down on his attacks against Ms Whitmer’s lockdown strategy, including in the 60 Minutes interview – which he ended abruptly out of disgust at the questioning.

It was not long after the plot was broken up that Mr Trump railed against Ms Whitmer at a rally in her own state, pausing to let the crowd chant “lock her up” and saying he hoped they would be “sending her packing” soon.

Reacting to that incident in an NBC News interview, Ms Whitmer called Mr Trump’s behaviour “incredibly disturbing”.

“Ten days after [the plot] was uncovered, the president is at it again, inspiring and incentivising and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism. It is wrong. It’s got to end. It is dangerous, not just for me and my family, but for public servants everywhere who are doing their jobs and trying to protect their fellow Americans.

“People of goodwill on both sides of the aisle need to step up and call this out and bring the heat down.”

But rather than taking her at her word, some Trump supporters read the interview differently. In the background behind Ms Whitmer was a small decal reading "8645" – an anti-Trump meme calling to “86” the 45th president, meaning vote him out. According to some on the right who watched the interview, the numbers were a veiled call to assassinate him. The war of words goes on.

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