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HARRISBURG — In a precarious position in the polls and with his focus fixed on the swing state of Pennsylvania, President Donald Trump has had no shortage of criticisms — many of them rooted in falsehoods — for Gov. Tom Wolf.
Most recently, at a campaign rally, Trump criticized Wolf for his coronavirus restrictions and implied he might withhold federal disaster aid in the future.
“I’ll remember it, Tom. I’m going to remember it, Tom,” Trump said before doing an impersonation of Wolf, holding his hand to his ear like a phone. “‘Hello, Mr. President, this is Governor Wolf. I need help. I need help.’ You know what, these people are bad.”
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., called the president’s comments outrageous. The governor’s press secretary said Trump was threatening everyone in the state. Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers largely kept quiet.
So how worried should Pennsylvania residents be about possible retribution?
The president’s statements aimed at Wolf are part of a pattern that politicizes the government’s disaster response, said Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
Earlier this month, shortly after the president wrote on Twitter that “California is going to hell. Vote Trump!”, his administration rejected a disaster declaration for the state’s wildfires. Less than two days later and facing criticism, Trump reversed course and approved California’s request, even before the state could go through the appeals process.
“This kind of signaling from the administration, whether or not it plays out in the actual implementation of assistance, erodes trust in the very systems that are designed to be there when people need it most,” Schlegelmilch said.
Pennsylvania receives tens of billions of dollars each year in federal funding, but most of that is driven by formulas and reimbursements set in law. But when disaster strikes, states often appeal to the federal government for more money, and the president has the power to approve or deny those requests.
If approved, the Federal Emergency Management Agency picks up at least 75% of the cost for disaster response like restoring roads, removing debris, providing shelter, and supplying food, water, and medical supplies.
“The president isn’t threatening the governor, he is threatening all citizens of the commonwealth by withholding federal aid,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, the governor’s spokesperson. “This type of behavior is amoral and unethical.”
Wolf is still waiting to hear whether Trump will approve another disaster declaration, which he requested on Oct. 5. in response to more than $27.6 million in estimated damage that Tropical Storm Isaias caused in Philadelphia, its suburbs, and a few other counties in the eastern part of the state.
Such requests can take weeks or even months to process.
The clash is the latest between the Democratic governor who won the state by 17 percentage points two years ago and the Republican president whose odds of re-election greatly rely on another victory in Pennsylvania.
Trump’s comments came three days after Pennsylvania set a new daily record for confirmed coronavirus cases, a record that was broken again on Tuesday. Hospitalizations in the state are also rising at their fastest pace in months, and officials are increasingly concerned about the extent of a “fall resurgence.”
“The president isn’t threatening the governor, he is threatening all citizens of the commonwealth by withholding federal aid,” a spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf said.
In the early months of the pandemic, Wolf largely avoided criticizing the president, even as Trump wrote on Twitter that the “great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now.” But in September, Wolf said the president was putting people’s lives at risk by hosting campaign rallies that violate the state’s guidance for gathering limits, mask orders, and social distancing.
During a Lehigh Valley rally Monday, the president went after Wolf, blaming the governor for shutting the campaign out of a venue on short notice — which the Wolf administration disputes, and the president and his campaign offered no evidence to support.
Trump accused Wolf of keeping the “whole commonwealth shut down” to hurt the president’s re-election, which is untrue. Wolf has lifted the stay-at-home orders and many of the business restrictions he put in place this spring in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Other restrictions remain for indoor and outdoor events, as well as bars and restaurants, though Wolf has loosened them over time.
The president also questioned the voting process in Pennsylvania and referred to Wolf “as the governor that counts the ballots” and said he would watch him “very closely.” Wolf later noted that each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are responsible for counting ballots.
Casey, the state’s Democratic senator, said it was “outrageous for President Trump to threaten to withhold funding from Pennsylvanians during a global pandemic.” Spokespeople for Democrats in the state House and Senate blasted the president’s comments, as well.
Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did a spokesperson for the House Republican caucus in Harrisburg. A spokesperson for Senate Republicans said they “aren’t interested in getting into hypotheticals.”
Nathan Benefield, vice president and chief operating officer of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, criticized Wolf when the governor withheld federal money from a county earlier this year. But he dismissed concerns over Trump’s comments, saying the president appeared to be “riffing” at a rally.
Schlegelmilch, of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said some people have had suspicions during past administrations about the role of politics and whether swing states and swing counties were more likely to receive federal disaster aid.
But he said that hasn’t been a mainstream concern until the Trump administration.
A 2019 study from University of Michigan researchers found “the federal government responded on a larger scale and much more quickly” to hurricanes in Texas and Florida, compared to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
For the coronavirus, Schlegelmilch said the Trump administration hasn’t done enough to help states. But he thought FEMA and other agencies have taken an objective approach to distributing the aid that is available.
The Trump administration approved a disaster declaration for Pennsylvania in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The state expects to receive about $29.7 million in disaster relief through FEMA’s Public Assistance program.
That’s a small fraction of the billions Congress and the Trump administration have sent to Pennsylvania through the CARES Act and enhanced unemployment payments. Wolf and the bipartisan National Governors Association have urged Congress and the president to pass another massive relief package.
During an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday, Wolf defended the state’s approach to the coronavirus — and took a shot at Trump’s re-election chances.
“He really has to take Pennsylvania and evidently doesn’t feel very good about it,” Wolf said. “So he has been here numerous times and is picking on a couple people here, including me.”
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