Michigan Gov. Whitmer: Protests 'undermine' state's response to COVID-19 crisis

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appeared on ABC's "The View" on Wednesday.

May 13, 2020, 11:55 AM

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is charged with overseeing the critical battleground's response to the coronavirus, said the frequent protests overwhelming the state's capital against her stay-at-home order are undermining the effort to stem the spread of the deadly virus.

"These protests, they do undermine the effort, and it's very clearly a political statement that is playing out where people are coming together from across the state, they are congregating, they're not wearing masks, they are not staying six feet apart, and then they go back home into communities and the risk of perpetuating the spread of COVID-19 is real," she said on ABC's "The View" on Wednesday. "While I respect people's right to dissent, they need to do it in a way that is responsible and does not put others at risk."

Whitmer has found herself in the middle of the partisan debate over when to reopen the nation after thousands of protesters, some carrying pro-Trump flags, lined the streets outside the state capital in Lansing in mid-April, overtly spurning the order.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appeared on "The View" May 13, 2020.

At the end of April, another demonstration led to hundreds of protesters, some of whom were armed with guns and rifles, spilling into the Michigan State Capitol building, crowding the halls and staircases to urge the state legislature to deny Whitmer's order. Another rally is planned for this week at the Capitol on Thursday, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Earlier this week, Whitmer urged Vice President Mike Pence to discourage the protests during a call with governors, according to audio of the call obtained by ABC News, in an effort to protect rural communities from potentially being afflicted by the large-scale gatherings, which she said could further spread the coronavirus in those areas after protesters return home.

Whitmer asked the vice president, to the extent that he can, to "reinforce kind of those needs to take this seriously" and added, "if discouraging protests is something you could consider doing, I'd really be grateful."

Pence didn't address her concerns over the protests, but added later in the exchange with Whitmer that the administration will "continue to emphasize to people the safe and responsible practices while we ll move toward re-opening."

When asked about her request of the vice president, and President Trump's tweets calling on the governor to "liberate" Michigan amid the pitched battles over the lockdown, Whitmer asserted that the protests only exacerbate the need for the stay-at-home order they are demonstrating against.

"These protests, you know, in a perverse way, make it likelier that we're going to have to stay in a stay-home posture," she said. "The whole point of them, supposedly, is that they don't want to be doing that. And that's why I'm asking that everyone with the platform, call on people to do the right thing."

"These have been really political rallies where people come with Confederate flags and Nazi symbolism and are calling for violence. This is not appropriate in a global pandemic but it's certainly not an exercise of democratic principles where we have free speech," she said. "This is calls to violence. This is racist and misogynistic."

The Democratic chief executive has remained steadfast in her approach to reopening Michigan.

Last week, Whitmer signed an executive order extending the state's stay-at-home order through May 28, despite growing from protesters and state officials to ease the to restrictions earlier.

Michigan is one of the hardest-hit states by the outbreak, with more than 48,000 confirmed cases and nearly 4,700 deaths - marking one of highest death rates in the country.

As her state grapples with the toll of the coronavirus, Whitmer acknowledged the concerns over the government's far-reaching response, telling the co-hosts, "I think that is a robust debate that we should absolutely have. The fact of the matter is, every decision that I've made has been on the right side of the Constitution and always centered by epidemiology, facts, and science and to save lives."

But she pushed back on the notion that her administration has been too restrictive in handling of the crisis, pointing to the "progress" the state has made so far.

"We've had this uniquely tough challenge with COVID-19, it took a uniquely tough stance to be aggressive and to combat the spread, and we've had a lot of success because of it," she said. "The numbers will show that what we have done is working. We are in the midst of ... a six phase plan for reengagement. We're now in the third phase."

"We're making progress. No one is more eager than I to start this reengagement of our economy and to see it through, but everyone's got to keep doing their part," she added.

When asked why she thinks Michigan, more than other states, is in the crosshairs of some of the most raucous protests, Whitmer speculated that it could be due to Michigan's importance in the upcoming 2020 election, which puts the state at the center of the fight for the White House.

"We know that there are a lot of different theories to that," she said. "Michigan certainly is in play in the 2020 election. Michigan's a state where people are watching. We're also state that had this massive increase early on with COVID-19."

"I think people are paying attention for a lot of different reasons. The fact of the matter is that we can't make decisions based on politics, we can't make decisions based on feeling, we have to listen to the science and the data and epidemiology and our public health experts," she said.

Ryan Kelley, a protest organizer, for the American Patriot Rally organized by the Michigan United for Liberty for the reopening of businesses stands on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 30, 2020.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

Since the onset of the spread of the novel coronavirus, Whitmer has emerged as one of the most visible leaders on the frontlines.

As one of the leading Democratic voices in the debate over the nation's response to the coronavirus, Whitmer has also landed on a shortlist, as she is highly speculated to be among a handful of female contenders presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is considering as a running mate.

Whitmer, who is a national co-chair of the Biden campaign, deflected when asked if she is considering becoming Biden's number two, instead reiterating that her focus falls squarely on the job she has now.

"I am grateful to be where I am, even on the hardest days in the middle of this pandemic, and there have been a lot of hard days," she said. "Every ounce of energy that I have is going into doing everything I can to get Michigan through this pandemic and save lives in the process and safely re-engage our economy."

"While I care incredibly about where we are headed as a country and I am grateful for the close relationship that I've had with the vice president, I'm going to work to help him every step of the way. That's not a conversation that we've had in any depth at this juncture," she continued.

As Biden with contends an allegation of sexual assault from Tara Reade, a former staffer in his Senate office - an accusation he has denied - Whitmer, a survivor of sexual assault, said she takes the allegation "very seriously" but is firmly standing behind the former vice president.

"I take this very seriously. You know, as a survivor myself, I want you to know that women are able to come forward and to tell their stories and we listen to them. For a long time, women were dismissed," she said. "As a lawyer, I recognize that it's important that we vet and understand and ask questions and determine credibility of all parties in any type of an allegation."

"In looking at this, I think that the inconsistencies that I've seen gives me the judgment that I believe Joe...in this instance, I do believe Joe Biden, and everyone needs to make that judgment," she asserted. "The Joe Biden that I know is inconsistent with what we have seen and what we have heard around this particular allegation...I will continue to enthusiastically support Joe."

ABC News' Katherine Faulders contributed reporting.