By Jeff Mason and Ben Klayman
YPSILANTI, Mich. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump traveled on Thursday to the crucial U.S. election battleground state of Michigan to visit a Ford Motor Co <F.N> plant amid hostility with its Democratic governor over how quickly to reopen its economy during the coronavirus pandemic, opting not to wear a protective face mask.
Trump visited the Ford plant, which has been recast to produce ventilators and personal protective equipment, and met with African-American leaders to discuss vulnerable populations hit by the virus.
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, did not wear a mask during this event even though Ford on Tuesday reiterated its policy that all visitors must wear them. He was to tour the plant later in the day.
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 has encouraged anti-lockdown protests against Whitmer held in Michigan’s capital.
In his meeting with African-American leaders, Trump spoke on the need to reopen churches, which like other parts of society have been affected by social distancing policies aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
“We’ve got to open our churches. People want to go in. I saw a scene today where people tried to break into a church … not to break in and steal something. They want to be in their church,” Trump said, adding that he expected the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to put out guidance on reopening places of worship as soon as Thursday.
Whitmer on Thursday moved to further reopen Michigan’s economy through a series of executive orders.
Trump’s visit also comes amid tensions over federal resources for Michigan, which has been hit by devastating floods. 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.
Trump on Thursday reiterated his opposition to mail-in voting but declined to discuss what funding he was considering trying to withhold.
“If you’re president of the United States and you vote in Florida and you can’t be there, you should be able to send in a ballot. If you’re not well, you’re feeling terrible, you’re sick, you have a reasonable excuse, you should be able to vote by mail in,” Trump said.
Trump on Thursday pledged federal support to help with the “very bad” dam breaks, saying the Army Corps of Engineers will help with the flooding problem. Rising floodwaters have displaced thousands of residents near the city of Midland.
Whitmer spoke with Trump on Wednesday.
“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.”
Trump won in Michigan in the 2016 election, the first Republican to do since 1988. Trump’s handful of trips out of Washington since the pandemic went into full force have focused on election battleground states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania.
(Additional reporting by David Shepardson, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Writing Jeff Mason and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Editing by Will Dunham)