Inside President Trump's call with governors: a mix of praise and criticism

The president spoke with a number of governors about coronavirus response.

March 26, 2020, 10:13 PM

In a teleconference with governors that lasted more than an hour Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump faced a barrage of compliments, concerns and in some exchanges, criticism as state leaders made it clear they want more assistance from the federal government to combat the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

According to detailed notes of the call obtained by ABC News, Trump kicked off the meeting by telling governors the federal government was managing the crisis at a "level that people find pretty impressive."

Every one of the more than a dozen governors who spoke during the call offered some sort of praise or thanks to the president, many sought assurances that the federal government would take a more commanding role moving forward in marshaling the resources and personnel they still need to combat novel coronavirus in their states. The Republican governor from Maryland, and chair of the National Governors Association, Larry Hogan said the states have raised concerns to him that they need more help, adding that states who have requested federal assistance through disaster declarations need to be approved faster.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has a contentious history with Trump, said on the call that all 50 states remain "desperate for supplies."

Inslee showed frustration with the federal government’s response, which the president said was about backing up state-led efforts.

"The point I want to make is I don't want you to be the back-up quarterback, we need you to be Tom Brady here," Inslee said as he pleaded with the president by telling him he has "both the moral and legal authority" to fix problems with the lack of personal protective equipment and ventilators currently available to medical workers.

In this March 16, 2020, photo Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks about the coronavirus outbreak in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson/AP, File

Trump replied to Inslee by laying blame at the feet of prior administrations, who he said left him a "broken system" that was "outdated" and assured the group the government will have the capacity to test "millions" of Americans after the work done on the coronavirus.

Even those governors who were most complimentary, like Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia -- who began his remarks with "a million thanks" to the president for his efforts -- said that his state was "right on the edge of a complete catastrophe.” Justice said there is a nursing home in the state that has seen a spike in coronavirus cases.

Justice again told the president the state was grateful, but said the nursing home was understaffed and they don't have the supplies they need.

The president replied that the government was working on his request for assistance, telling Justice that he didn't want a similar situation like what happened in Washington state, where an outbreak of COVID-19 in a life care center led to more than two dozen deaths, to also happen in West Virginia.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser voiced her frustration during the call about the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package approved by the Senate because she said the legislation labels D.C. as a territory and not a state -- meaning it would only receive $500 million in relief funds, rather than the $1.5 billion states would receive.

Bowser said the district was being "shortchanged" and asked the president if the bill could be fixed before the House votes on Friday.

The president told Bowser that the issue was already being discussed, and it would be added to this bill or the next bill. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said he was already having conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the issue.

"We are going to be adding something into the next bill and it will happen fairly quickly," Trump said.

When Bowser pressed him on whether it could happen by Friday, Trump said he'd give it a shot, adding later, "We'll do it one way or another Muriel, we'll get it done."

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room at the White House, on March 26, 2020, in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP

As the call went on, governors tallied off their recent numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and how they have continued to rise. Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina said his state was in a "mad scramble" for personal protective equipment.

Trump made clear to governors he still had his mind set on opening the country as quickly as possible as jobless claims last week rose to historic levels of nearly 3.3 million Americans.

"We should put you on an early opening list," Trump said of the states who have not seen significant amounts of confirmed cases as of Thursday's meeting. "We can't keep everybody closed -- this country closed -- it's ridiculous. A lot of these states have to get back to work."

The comment came in response to remarks from South Carolina's Gov. Henry McMaster, who told the group the state was running low on supplies, but added that if this lasts too long, many people will go broke, especially the small businesses.

President Donald Trump gestures as Vice President Mike Pence looks on during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in the press briefing room of the White House, on March 26, 2020, in Washington.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One of the last to speak on the call was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has recently become one of the most public faces of America's handling of the pandemic as New York City has sought to slow a rapid surge in COVID-19 cases.

In public remarks, Cuomo has walked a fine line in balancing the urgent public needs of his state, while mostly avoiding direct criticism of Trump's handling of the crisis -- a posture he echoed on the call.

"I want to just say we all stand with you," Cuomo said to the group. "The governors are not a hyper-political, hyper-partisan group. We all represent the people of our state."

Trump closed the call by making clear he was pleased with Cuomo's praise.

"Nonpolitical -- probably the greatest thing I heard today," Trump said.

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