Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told NBC News she was "shocked" by President Donald Trump's "appalling" response to her after federal officials revealed they had thwarted a plot to kidnap her around the November election.
"I was shocked to see that response," Whitmer said. "I think this was a moment where I heard from a lot of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, my fellow governors, Republican and Democrat, reached out to say, 'Are you OK? How's your family?'"
"That's what decent people do. And unfortunately, that was not the response at the White House," she said.
Within hours of this interview conducted Thursday morning, Trump said on Fox Business Network that Whitmer "has to open up" and "wants to be a dictator," echoing language used by those arrested in the foiled plot.
"The people can't stand her," he added.
Whitmer, a Democrat, had connected the plot to Trump's language after it was first revealed, saying he has "refused" to condemn groups like the Michigan militia groups named in the foiled scheme, pointing to remarks he made about the "Proud Boys" group during last month's presidential debate. The president had also tweeted "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" earlier this year when the state was under more stringent shutdown orders.
The White House, the Trump campaign and the president himself all pushed back on that connection.
In a series of tweets the night the indictments were announced, Trump said Whitmer "has done a terrible job" and that rather than "say thank you" for the federal government having foiled the effort, "she calls me a White Supremacist."
"I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence," he said. "Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President! Governor Whitmer — open up your state, open up your schools, and open up your churches!"
Such commentary, Whitmer said, outlines what's "at stake here in this election."
"In this moment, blaming the victim is appalling and downright dangerous," she said. "And that's precisely why this election is so important."
In connection with the plot, six men were arrested on federal charges while seven more were hit with state charges. Federal investigators had utilized informants and tracked the men for months. A senior federal law enforcement official said some of the individuals were found to be tied to the anti-government "boogaloo" movement. They had also discussed kidnapping Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat.
According to the federal criminal complaint, the men sought to take Whitmer hostage before the November election and conducted surveillance on her vacation home. Just last week, they sought to purchase explosives. One of the alleged plotters referred to the governor as "this tyrant b----" over her coronavirus restrictions.
"I'm still not sure if I processed it all to be honest," Whitmer said of the plot. "But this is a moment in time that I think shows how important it is that leaders with platforms ... speak to our American ideals and are responsible with our rhetoric. And I think that's never been more clear to me than right now."
A recent Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll found that Whitmer's approval stands at 51 percent, with 41 percent not approving of the governor. But the backlash to some of her Covid-19 shutdown measures was intense, particularly in the pandemic's earlier months when multiple right-wing protests over those restrictions took place. The president was among the most critical voices, repeatedly knocking Whitmer over those strict efforts to contain the virus.
Meanwhile, in a 4-3 decision earlier this month, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against Whitmer's emergency powers, invalidating some of her earlier orders. Whitmer defended her administration's actions, saying, "we have saved thousands of lives," adding the state's economic rebound has been promising.
"It's all at risk now," she said. "And we still have a number of executive powers. We've got a statewide mask order that is still in effect. We've got limitations on gatherings that is still in effect. But a lot of the other actions that I was able to take and move swiftly to take them have been undermined."
Whitmer's state was among the hardest hit early on. Deaths, hospitalizations and cases fell dramatically from mid-April through early-July. Michigan's unemployment rate stands at about 8.5 percent, which is among the bottom half nationally. In a promising development, initial jobless claims were down by nearly 5,000 last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, even as jobless claims increased nationally.
But in recent days, cases have started to spike. Hospitalizations are on the rise too, though not near the level they were in the pandemic's early days. Whitmer says she's fearing a big wave as the weather keeps getting colder. There have been over 7,300 deaths in the state from the virus and nearly 157,000 cases, according to NBC News' tally.
"As we go into flu season where we have more of our economy engaged and more face-to-face instruction, I am concerned about our ability to react and keep our numbers down," she said. "We've always been told from day one that the fall would be a dangerous point in time."
Yet, she said, the environment is far different now, particularly with our knowledge of the virus having greatly improved.
"We're all tired of it. Believe me, governors are too," she said. "But the fact of the matter is, Covid is still a very real threat all across the country and all across Michigan. And we've got to continue to wear masks and physically distance and wash our hands, because those are the best tools we have right now."
"Vaccines are on the horizon. Therapeutics are getting better," she continued. "But we're not there yet and that's why we got to keep doing these rudimentary tools that'll keep us safe."
With the election less than three weeks away, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden holds a polling lead ranging from 6 to 9 points in the state. Whitmer, who had been on the shortlist to be Biden's running mate, said it looks promising for Biden in her state. She noted Trump's narrow 2016 victory and her 10-point victory two years later.
"The difference was turnout," she said. "We are going to have a historic turnout in Michigan for this presidential election. There's already been about a million votes cast, which is absolutely stunning."
"So I do believe that a big turnout bodes well for Vice President Biden," she continued. "However, I also know in Michigan, an overwhelming victory still is only 53 percent of the vote. And so, this is going to be a race up until the very end and we're going to take it seriously up until the very end."