JANESVILLE, Wis./WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, who played down the coronavirus pandemic from its onset, criticized Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Saturday for her policies to curb the outbreak, drawing shouts of “lock her up” from a rally crowd.
Trump made the remarks during the first stop of a three-day trip through critical swing states, some of which he won in 2016 but that polls show are supporting Democratic rival Joe Biden this year.
The president held large rallies in Wisconsin and Michigan despite rising coronavirus cases in both states. Supporters who attended the rallies did not maintain social distance. Some wore masks, some did not.
At a rally in Muskegon, Michigan, Trump targeted Whitmer several times, criticizing the state’s rules to stop the spread of coronavirus, calling her “dishonest,” and making light of a right-wing plot uncovered by the FBI to kidnap her.
“They said she was threatened,” Trump said. “And she blamed me.” The president has been critical of Whitmer, who was a candidate to be Biden’s vice presidential nominee, for months.
“Hopefully you’ll be sending her packing pretty soon,” Trump said.
The crowd’s chant of “Lock her up!” referring to Whitmer reprised the chants that Trump supporters often direct at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump in 2016.
Whitmer responded on Twitter to the episode. “This is exactly the rhetoric that has put me, my family, and other government officials’ lives in danger while we try to save the lives of our fellow Americans,” she wrote.
Lee Chatfield, the Republican speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, also commented on Twitter: “Trump didn’t chant ‘lock her up’ about our Governor. But others did and it was wrong. She was literally just targeted. Let’s debate differences. Let’s win elections. But not that.”
Michigan added 1,791 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, bringing the state’s seven-day total to over 10,000 cases, a new record, according to the state’s health department. Wisconsin reported 3,861 new COVID cases on Friday, also a new record. Trump won both states four years ago but is behind Biden in them this year.
Biden, a former vice president, has hammered Trump for his response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 219,000 people in the United States, the highest death toll in the world. He said in a statement on Saturday he planned to unite the country to fight the virus if he wins.
“All President Trump is offering the people of Michigan is more lies and distractions — no plan to get the virus under control, no strategy for pulling our economy out of this recession, no vision for uniting the country,” Biden said.
‘INSECURITY AND ENVY’
His campaign called Trump’s remarks about Whitmer “toxic attacks”, and said his conduct “reflects his own insecurity and envy of Governor Whitmer’s respected record of leadership in a time of crisis.”
Trump sought to turn Biden’s criticism around on Saturday by saying that his rival would impede the recovery from the outbreak.
“Biden will shut down the country, delay the vaccine and prolong the pandemic,” Trump said at both rallies.
Trump’s advisers have long seen Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as Pennsylvania, as key to his chances of re-election. The president is also playing defense in traditional Republican strongholds, including Arizona, where he plans to campaign on Monday, and Georgia, where he campaigned on Friday night.
He plans to campaign in Nevada, a state Clinton won in 2016, on Sunday.
Trump lags in opinion polls https://polling.reuters.com and the latest figures from his campaign show he is also trailing in fundraising as the race intensifies. Early voting is shattering records, with more than 26 million Americans having already cast ballots.
Biden, who has stepped up travel in recent weeks after keeping a reduced schedule because of the pandemic, remained in his home state of Delaware on Saturday.
His running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, is also eschewing travel for a few days after an aide came down with COVID-19.
Harris, speaking on Saturday during a virtual fundraiser, said Trump had exhibited a “reckless disregard for human life” in his response to the pandemic.
She said a Biden-Harris administration would have a vaccine distribution plan that takes into account “the long-standing and most evident racial disparities that have wreaked havoc on particular communities.”
U.S. presidential elections are determined by electoral votes, allotted to U.S. states and territories based largely on their populations, rather than a tally of the popular vote nationwide. Candidates must secure 270 out of 538 electoral votes to win.
Wisconsin has 10 electoral votes, Michigan has 16 and Arizona has 11. Nevada has six electoral votes.
Trump, who usually avoids wearing a mask, repeated on Saturday that the country is turning the corner on the disease, shortly after the number of U.S. cases crossed 8 million, rising by 1 million in less than a month.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Michael Martina; additional reporting by Heather Timmons and David Shepardson; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Sonya Hepinstall and Raju Gopalakrishnan)