Last year, President Donald Trump made sure he sat next to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the annual Governors Ball.
But the event Sunday night in the East Room of the White House was different, Whitmer told the Advance in an exclusive phone interview while in Washington, D.C. The president opted to give a speech in lieu of having smaller conversations with many governors, as he did in 2019, she said.
Democrats tapped Whitmer last week to give the official response to Trump’s State of the Union address, something she said the president noted in a photo line.
“It was a very brief interaction,” she recalled. “He told me he’d heard I did a nice job on the State of the Union response. And that was it.”
In brief public remarks, Trump took a victory lap on the United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement (USMCA), the new trade deal he signed last month.
“I thought we’d do something a little different tonight that’s never been done before, and rather than sitting and making small talk all night, I thought we’ll have the press leave,” Trump said, per the pool report. “When they depart, we’ll start asking questions, making statements. You can make — if you have any suggestions, we’d love to hear them. If you have any questions, I’d love to answer them for you.”
Whitmer said Trump also mentioned U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to convict the president last week on one impeachment article in the Senate trial, and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor.
“There were a lot of different things that were on his mind, apparently,” Whitmer said.
Her time in Washington also included the National Governors Association winter conference, which she called “really productive,” as well as a meeting with actor Chris Evans, i.e. “Captain America” in the Marvel superhero movies.
— Gretchen Whitmer (@gretchenwhitmer) February 10, 2020
Evans is launching a political website called, “A Starting Point,” aimed at bridging the ideological divide. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, both Republicans, also met with the star.
The Advance also talked with Whitmer about other governors’ takes on her SOTU response, the auto industry and the infrastructure crisis plaguing many states.
The following are excerpts of the interview:
Michigan Advance: Last night, you had the Governors Ball. Last year, you were able to talk with President Trump about trade and the Great Lakes. Were you able to talk with him this time around?
Whitmer: I was not at the table that he was. … I was at a different table, but instead of having conversations through dinner, he went to a podium and spoke. It wasn’t an exchange. We did take our pictures in a picture line. It was a very brief interaction. He told me he’d heard I did a nice job on the State of the Union response. And that was it.
Michigan Advance: Did he have anything interesting to say during his speech?
Whitmer: It was like lots of press availabilities that we’ve seen. It was really not very different. He took a few questions, but it was a real departure from how the state dinner was last year.
Michigan Advance: Did he talk about impeachment at all?
Whitmer: A little bit. He talked a little bit about Mitt Romney and a little bit about Pete Buttigieg and was kind of all over. There were a lot of different things that were on his mind, apparently.
Michigan Advance: Did any of the governors talk to you about your response?
Whitmer: Lots of them, actually from both sides of the aisle. Obviously, my fellow Democrats were pleased and I acknowledged [in the speech] a lot of good work they’re doing. And I did have a number of my Republican colleagues tell me they thought it was a good speech.
Michigan Advance: Last year, the Governors Ball was right before the big Fiat-Chrysler jobs announcement, and I remember that you did not want to share details with the president, because he might say them before the announcement was public.
Michigan Advance: Do you have any big economic development announcements that we should keep an eye out on?
Whitmer: GM was a big one about two weeks ago. … Like I said, my interactions [with Trump] were much more limited than it was last year.
Michigan Advance: You focused on ‘dinner-table issues’ in your rebuttal. After being with governors the last few days, are there any other issues you think that will be really key in 2020?
Whitmer: We’re all confronting infrastructure that has been underinvested in for a long period of time. In Michigan, we’re, I think, uniquely bad off, but it is vexing every state.
I sat with [Gov.] Mike DeWine, our Ohio neighbor, last night and he passed a gas tax — Republican Legislature; Republican governor. And he was pleased that they were getting to work, but it wasn’t nearly what he opened with in terms of his budget proposal. And so recognizing that they’re still going to have needs that are unmet in our hope that we [states] do get some infrastructure assistance from the federal government. I think everyone’s hoping that.
I just left a session where we’re talking about closing the ‘skills gap,’ which is that dinner-table conversation that I’m always referring to. … We did spend a bit of energy on broadband this morning and trying to get the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to properly map, so we are working off of good data and I think that’s a challenge that relates to all the infrastructure conversation, but we maybe don’t highlight it as often as the obvious roads and bridges.
Michigan Advance: Do you have hope that there might be movement at the federal level on infrastructure this year, even though it’s an election year, since it’s such a huge issue for many other governors, as well?
Whitmer: I am hopeful that that happens. Everyone says it’s important (laughs), so let’s get it done.