By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump travels on Thursday to the crucial U.S. election battleground state of Michigan to visit a Ford Motor Co plant amid hostility with its Democratic governor over how quickly to reopen its economy during the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump, a Republican seeking re-election on Nov. 3, has urged states to loosen coronavirus-related restrictions so the battered U.S. economy can recover even as public health experts warn that premature relaxation of restrictions could lead to a second wave of infections.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, seen as a potential vice presidential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is facing a backlash from some critics against her stay-at-home orders in a state hit hard by the last recession.
Trump on Wednesday threatened to withhold federal funding from Michigan over its plan for expanded mail-in voting, saying without offering evidence that the practice could lead to voter fraud – though he later appeared to back off the threat.
Rising floodwaters have caused more trouble in Michigan, displacing thousands of residents near the city of Midland.
Trump will visit the city of Ypsilanti to tour a Ford plant that has been recast to produce ventilators and personal protective equipment and to discuss vulnerable populations hit by the virus in a meeting with African-American leaders.
It is not clear if the president, who has said he is taking a drug not proven for the coronavirus after two White House staffers tested positive in recent weeks, will wear a protective face mask. He has declined to wear one on previous factory tours despite guidelines for employees to do so.
On Tuesday, Ford reiterated its policy that all visitors must wear masks but did not say if it would require Trump to comply.
Whitmer told a news conference she spoke with Trump on Wednesday and he pledged federal support in the flood recovery.
“I made the case that, you know, we all have to be on the same page here. We’ve got to stop demonizing one another and really focus on the fact that the common enemy is the virus. And now it’s a natural disaster,” Whitmer told CBS News, describing her conversation with Trump.
Regarding Trump’s funding threat, Whitmer said, “Threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary, and I think something that is unacceptable.”
Whitmer on Thursday moved to further reopen Michigan’s economy, signing a series of executive orders that let people gather in groups smaller than 10, retail and auto showrooms to resume operations by appointment, and nonessential medical and dental services to resume.
The Midwestern state ranks seventh among U.S. states with 53,009 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, a Reuters tally showed, with at least 5,060 deaths.
Trump and Ford have been at odds over its decision last year to back a deal with California for stricter vehicle fuel economy standards than his administration had proposed.
Trump first sparred with Ford during the 2016 campaign over the automaker’s investments in Mexico and had vowed to slap hefty tariffs taxes on its vehicles made in Mexico.
Asked if Trump would cover his face at factor, Vice President Pence told Fox Business Network that Trump would make that decision and would follow the guidance of the White House physicians.
U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said on Twitter that she hoped Trump will “follow the protocols and wear a mask when he visits the Ford plant.”
Trump won narrowly won in Michigan in the 2016 election, the first Republican to do since 1988.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by David Shepardson and Susan Heavey; Editing by Peter Cooney and Will Dunham)