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Trump on governors: 'They have to treat us well, also'

Does Trump expect governors to offer the White House political support as it allocates emergency resources?
Image: President Trump Departs The White House En Route To Capitol For State Of The Union Address
The White House on January 30, 2018.Zach Gibson / Getty Images file

It's not exactly a secret that there's been considerable friction between governors and the White House as the coronavirus crisis has taken shape, with state officials looking to federal officials for assistance, resources, and guidance, even as Donald Trump tries to pass the buck back to governors.

"[G]overnors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work, and they are doing a lot of this work," the president said last week. "The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we're not a shipping clerk. The governors are supposed to be -- as with testing, the governors are supposed -- are supposed to be doing it."

It was against this backdrop that Trump revisited the subject during a Fox News event yesterday. Referring to his coordination with governors, the president said:

"...I think we're doing very well. But, you know, it's a two-way street. They have to treat us well, also. They can't say, 'Oh gee, we should get this, we should get that.'"

Broadly speaking, there are two important problems with this. The first is that governors are absolutely in a position where they should make demands of the federal government, asking for all kinds of resources, materials, and aid.

Jon Chait explained the other day that state and local governments "lack the bargaining power and national scale to take control of industrial processes that lie outside their borders. How is a governor of Ohio or New Mexico supposed to get a manufacturer in, say, California to start producing medical equipment? And how are these governors supposed to allocate the equipment that is produced?"

In other words, when governors say, "Oh gee, we should get this, we should get that," the president's job is to make every effort to meet their needs, not argue that the appeals themselves are somehow inappropriate.

But I was also struck by Trump's insistence that governors "have to treat us well." He didn't elaborate, which was a shame, because there are some disturbing ways to interpret the comments.

A Washington Post report, for example, said Trump was suggesting that "governors owe it to the administration to not to be critical as it doles out emergency supplies."

That's an untenable posture under any circumstances, but it's especially indefensible now.