‘Everything is an emergency, all the time’: What Dana Nessel’s life as Michigan AG looks like now 

Attorney General Dana Nessel working at home with Bella | AG office photo

Like many Michiganders, Attorney General Dana Nessel is working from home — office cat included. It’s exhausting, but she’s grateful that she’s able to as Michigan continues to reel from one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation.

“We’re lucky that my wife and I have jobs; we can work from home … and we have secure housing. These are all the kinds of things that we are very, very lucky to have, that we’re very fortunate to have,” Nessel said. “It makes me sad because obviously there are people all around our state that don’t have that good fortune, and as a result, they have to put themselves and their families at risk every day.”

Dana Nessel, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Freshly out of a two-week voluntary self-quarantine in her basement after being in contact with people who tested positive for COVID-19, Nessel spoke with the Advance Thursday on what it’s like to be the state’s chief law enforcement officer at all hours of the day from her Plymouth home.

“It’s just constant. … Everything is an emergency, all the time. And things really can’t wait, because people’s lives are constantly depending on the work that we’re doing,” Nessel said.

Nessel, a political novice elected in the 2018 Democratic wave, already had established herself as a legal powerhouse on major environmental, economic and criminal issues, frequently taking on the President Trump administration. Her independent authority forever irked GOP lawmakers even before a pandemic swept across the nation. Now she’s tasked with her most pivotal role yet: Ensuring the airtight legality of the state’s emergency response to the biggest crisis in Michigan’s modern history.

The Advance talked to Nessel this week about how her role in state decisions has shifted since the COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan began, the stark realization that eventually prompted her to work from home and her take on the backlash against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency orders.

“I understand it’s hard for people to appreciate that because people are scared, people’s lives have been completely upended and disrupted, and that’s upsetting,” Nessel said. “It’s upsetting for everybody, but nothing is as upsetting as losing a loved one to this virus or losing your own life.”

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: What does a typical day in the life look like for you right now? I know from Twitter that you were self-quarantining in your basement with your teenage boys. Is that right?

Nessel: I was for 14 days. Before [then] I think that many of us, including myself, fully appreciated just how contagious the virus was, I felt it was important — I didn’t want my staff going to the office and me not being there. I didn’t think it was fair.

So I continued to go to the office every day because we still had people who, as much as we … did everything we could as quickly as we possibly could to put telecommuting into place. And I was really impressed with my office, and very proud of my staff for working with the state to make sure that happened really quick. And I’ll give a shout out to the DTMB [Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget], which no one ever does. Because they worked really hard to assist us in that process. But I just didn’t like the thought of people coming into the office and me staying home. So I continued to go in.

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And when it really struck me was … my consumer protection staff, the one that mans the phones for scams and for price gouging, they were getting exhausted. And in fairness … we were just being inundated with calls. And I thought, we can’t just shut it down at 5 o’clock Monday through Friday right now, because the public needs this too much. So I volunteered and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to come in on the weekend, and I’ll get a bunch of legislators to do the same.’ … But after I spent the weekend doing that, a number of people who were present with us tested positive [for COVID-19].

It made me realize that even though we were doing the things that we thought we needed to do — we were socially distancing 6 feet, and we were wiping down the phones and the counters and everything in between usages — we were still in the immediate proximity of each other. And the more that I learned talking to people from the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the more I came to see that … you can be asymptomatic and you can just be, you know, breathing and talking, and even though you’re not even sneezing or coughing, you can still transfer the virus from person to person that way.

And that’s when I realized that it was actually really unfair to my family for me to be going out and doing that every day, and then coming back home. And so the first 14 days that I stopped working at the office, I self-quarantined in the basement, and only came upstairs to the kitchen to eat, and then wiped things down immediately afterwards. And then after the 14 days passed, I, you know, went back to the second floor of my house and everything. [laughs]

Again, that’s something really important, just even the ability to self-quarantine to protect your family. There are a lot of people out there that don’t have that same ability.

And I will say it’s sort of on a different topic, it’s one of the big concerns that we’ve had in terms of things like, you know, releases from MDOC [Department of Corrections]. It’s great when people have safe housing to go to, but what happens if these are people that have tested positive or people who can’t be tested because they’re asymptomatic, so we can’t get tests for them? And now they get to go back to a home with maybe three generations of people, and they don’t know if they are positive and there’s no way to self-quarantine. So these are other considerations that I just think about in terms of the regular public.

But for me, honestly, it’s strange because even though I’ve been working from home, I’m actually more exhausted than I’ve ever been. And I’m somebody that normally in a typical week, I could do five to 10 town halls. But I think the reason for that is, it’s just constant. You’re inundated with calls and emails and conferences, Zoom conferences, you know, from first thing in the morning until late, late at night, because of the emergency nature of the situation. 

Everything is an emergency, all the time. And things really can’t wait, because people’s lives are constantly depending on the work that we’re doing — and the work, of course, the governor’s office and all of the state agencies and departments that are working on anything that’s COVID-19-related.

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Michigan Advance: Speaking of the governor and her directives — Gov. Whitmer is obviously in the most public facing role in Michigan’s COVID-19 response right now. But you were already playing a huge role in state decisions before this pandemic, and I’m wondering whether that role has become even larger, and how much you’re doing behind the scenes on things like executive orders.

Nessel: We’ve been working with the governor’s office and her team constantly since the very first order that came down, and trying to do our very best in order to ensure that these orders are properly drafted. And … the policies are clearly very, very important, but the legality is equally as important. … I think it’s understood, and we have a shared understanding, that these orders are being promulgated for one reason and one reason only: And that is to protect people’s lives.

And it’s been upsetting for me to see the way that these orders and the governor have been attacked. I mean, this is not fun for anyone. And I think for all of us that serve in state government, the last thing we want is to see businesses shut down. The last thing we want is to see people unemployed. The last thing we want is to see people unable to travel or to spend time with loved ones. But this, according to all scientific evidence, this is absolutely what is required in order to stop the virus from spreading, and in order to save people’s lives. That’s the reason for each and every one of these orders. 

… I understand it’s hard for people to appreciate that because people are scared; people’s lives have been completely upended and disrupted, and that’s upsetting. It’s upsetting for everybody, but nothing is as upsetting as losing a loved one to this virus or losing your own life. … If we learned anything during the last recession, people can regain economic stability after a crisis or after a recession. But once you’ve lost your life, you never get that back.

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Michigan Advance: On that front, what is your take on the federal lawsuit that was filed Tuesday by an Oakland County landscaper and three other residents, who are arguing that the most recent stay at home order is a violation of their 5th and 1st Amendment rights?

Nessel: Well, we’re obviously defending the lawsuit. We think that the governor’s orders were appropriate and legally justifiable. Beyond that, I can’t get into much detail in terms of the lawsuit, but I will just again say, in general, that when you talk about the standard of there being a compelling state interest, I don’t know what could be more compelling than saving the lives of thousands and thousands of our state residents. There is nothing more important; there is no greater right than the right to stay alive.

… The reason for each and every one of these orders is to do everything we can to make certain that people’s health, safety and welfare are being properly protected.

Michigan Advance: I want to turn to the other non-pandemic issues. What has it been like working to make sure the state safe stays functional during a pandemic while already dealing with the broad range of issues you were taking on before, like Line 5, the clergy investigation and all the multi-state lawsuits [against the Trump administration]? How are you juggling all of this?

Nessel: We’re trying our best to continue on, in terms of all the litigation that we were previously involved in. Obviously, our focus has had to change, right? So you can talk about the things that are most pertinent to COVID-19: All the price gouging-related work we’re doing, battling against the COVID-19 scams, my duties as the chief law enforcement official of this state and coordinating with law enforcement all over the state of Michigan to enforce the governor’s orders. And then of course, assisting with the governor in terms of the drafting of those orders.

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But those cases that you talked about, I mean, they still continue. And not everything can be done from home, obviously. There are a lot of courts that have been shut down. … The [Michigan] Supreme Court is completely done remotely now, and I really give great credit to [Chief] Justice [Bridget] McCormack and all the justices for coordinating it to make sure that the arguments continue and the cases move on and move forward. We’re trying to do the best that we can. A lot of cases have been adjourned.

… For the most part, you can write a brief from your home as well as you can from the office. But depositions, and in terms of procuring documents, that’s a lot harder when you’re not physically [there]. If you’re trying to subpoena documents from a business that’s now closed, it’s kind of hard sometimes to get those documents. [laughs] I mean, there, there are a number of things.

And of course, like in our clergy abuse investigation, we definitely are going through all the e-documents right now. And we have a number of attorneys that are now, if they’re not working on other things, then they’ve turned their attention to something like that. But for instance, physical documents, you don’t want people passing around documents from person to person under this set of circumstances.

Our Line 5 case we’ve moved forward on. I’m not aware of any adjournments that have occurred on that at this point. The federal lawsuits, most of them continue to move forward, and we’ve been making a lot of progress on that front. 

So, yes, there are certain functions that for various different reasons have been disrupted, but then there are other functions that have continued — I don’t want to say seamlessly — but, you know, as normal as can be expected under the circumstances.

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Michigan Advance: I know you mentioned it on Twitter, but I did want to get your thoughts on the gridlock protest [Wednesday] at the Capitol. Thousands of people turned out and many of them were not social distancing or wearing masks. What are your thoughts on that?

Nessel: Well, I certainly agree with the governor’s contention that if anything, the folks that came to protest but did not follow the directives in terms of social distancing and wearing masks and all the rest very likely were aiding and abetting in the spread of the virus.

Everyone has a 1st Amendment right to protest. But under the circumstances, obviously, we would have hoped that those protests would have occurred in a manner that people were protecting not just their own lives, but the lives of their friends and their family and their communities. And then we know of course that beyond that, the virus then spreads to health care workers and food service providers and law enforcement who had to be there as a result.

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So I would never want to deny somebody their constitutional right to engage in appropriate 1st Amendment activities. But would I have liked to have seen it occur in a safer fashion? Yes, of course.

… Living in the Detroit area … my Facebook feed has started to look like the obituary pages. I know so many people who have died, and I know so many people who have lost loved ones.

And I am deeply concerned [when] I see those kinds of crowds gathering, and all I can think about is: Where are they from? And, potentially, are they now bringing this virus back to a community where there has not yet been much of an outbreak? And what if it’s an area where they don’t have the same number of health care workers that you have in other areas and there’s an outbreak? So that makes me very concerned.