At first, Donald Trump belittled their moves to force their states into lockdowns. Then, he attacked them when they sought surgical masks from federal stockpiles. Now, he is in the midst of a high-stakes battle over whether they need tens of thousands of additional ventilators.
At almost every turn in the month-long coronavirus crisis, Mr Trump has lashed out at some of the US’s most prominent state governors — almost all of them Democrats — for their efforts to get the federal government to take the pandemic more seriously and act faster.
Jay Inslee, the Washington governor whose state had the first American outbreak, was called “a snake”. Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer was “way in over her head”. Andrew Cuomo of New York has to “do more” for the nation’s hottest of hotspots.
But in recent days, the president’s efforts to demonise Democratic governors has appeared to backfire. As the American death toll mounts, and Mr Trump has publicly questioned the need for tens of thousands of life-saving ventilators, the governors’ poll ratings have skyrocketed — and the president’s have begun to fall.
Mr Cuomo’s approval ratings have hit seven-year highs, with 87 per cent of New Yorkers approving his handling of the Covid-19 outbreak. Mr Inslee’s leadership in the crisis is supported by 67 per cent in his home state. And Ms Whitmer has recently been touted by Joe Biden as a potential vice-president.
“She made the list, in my mind, two months ago,” Mr Biden told NBC News.
At the same time, some recent polls show Mr Trump’s initial crisis-related bump in approval is beginning to fade, with a Reuters-Ipsos poll this week showing 46 per cent backing the job the president was doing, about where he was before the crisis.
This change in circumstances has come as the death toll in the US has approached 6,000 and a cacophony of governors from across the country have, almost in unison, taken the federal government to task for the chaotic national effort to secure ventilators.
“It’s like being on eBay with 50 other states bidding on a ventilator. Then Fema gets involved and Fema starts bidding,” Mr Cuomo told reporters this week, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “What sense does this make?”
Governors say this has led to a situation where manufacturers have no clear instructions on which areas of the country to prioritise, and are left to decide which contracts to fulfil first. And most of the ventilators are being bought from Chinese manufacturers, a situation Mr Cuomo has dubbed “a cruel irony”.
Mr Trump has deflected the criticism, insisting the federal government was not responsible for the problem.
“Long before this pandemic arrived, they [the states] should have been on the open market just buying,” Mr Trump said on Thursday. “We’re a back-up. We’re not an ordering clerk.”
But Ms Whitmer last week said shipments to her state were being redirected to the federal government. In addition, if states are not able to get what they need from their regular suppliers, they can make a request instead to the national strategic stockpile, which is administered by Fema.
“This situation is insane. It’s insane,” said Tom Cochran, the chief executive of the US Conference of Mayors. “Can you imagine in World War Two everybody trying to outbid each other for what they need? We need to have one person, one operation that facilitates this whole thing.”
There are signs the president — who this week for the first time acknowledged the American death toll could hit the hundreds of thousands — has started to become more conciliatory towards governors, perhaps conscious of the changing poll numbers.
On Thursday, he said he had ordered the federal government to drop out of ventilator bidding if it appeared Washington was competing with state governments.
“We’ve told this to the governors . . . if you think there’s bidding between federal government and state, let us know and we’ll drop out immediately, or you drop out,” Mr Trump said. “And we lower the price.”
Most worrying to some critics, it appeared that until recently as if Mr Trump would only send aid to governors who he liked. Mr Trump has said: “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”
Florida, governed by Republican Ron DeSantis, a close ally of Mr Trump, is in the process of receiving a third shipment from the federal stockpile, and once that is delivered, will have received 100 per cent of its requests. Mr Trump said Florida had been “very aggressive in trying to get things done”, even though Mr DeSantis was one of the last governors to implement a lockdown, reversing course only this week.
In contrast, John Bel Edwards, the Democratic governor of Louisiana, which has emerged as one of the hardest-hit states, on Monday said he had ordered 14,000 ventilators, including 5,000 from the national stockpile, but had only received 191 pieces of equipment to date — and none from the stockpile.
Some governors appear to have decided that being nice about Mr Trump is their best bet to secure what they need, even if they have prominently criticised him in the past.
Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California, who has boasted of leading the most “un-Trump” state in the US, has in recent days praised the president for “his focus on treatments’’.
Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington