Michigan Attorney General Comments On The Culture War Surrounding Stay-At-Home Orders NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel about President Trump's visit to Michigan on Thursday and the culture war surrounding stay-at-home orders.
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Michigan Attorney General Comments On The Culture War Surrounding Stay-At-Home Orders

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Michigan Attorney General Comments On The Culture War Surrounding Stay-At-Home Orders

Michigan Attorney General Comments On The Culture War Surrounding Stay-At-Home Orders

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Before President Trump landed in Michigan yesterday to tour a Ford ventilator factory, the state's attorney general made one thing clear - you have a legal and moral responsibility to wear a mask. That is what AG Dana Nessel wrote to the president in an open letter. Well, during most of his tour, Trump did not wear a mask.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I had one on before. I wore one in this back area. But I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.

KELLY: Didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it - well, decisions about whether to wear a mask or not have become emblematic of a wider debate in this country about how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and how far the government should go in the name of public health. To talk more about this, we are joined by Dana Nessel, the Democratic attorney general of Michigan. Dana Nessel, welcome.

DANA NESSEL: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Why is it so important to push this particular point with the president?

NESSEL: Well, you know, in Michigan, we've been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. We've had well over 5,000 people who've died in our state, many more than 50,000 positive-tested infections. And, you know, I haven't seen the president take this particularly seriously when it comes to the precautions that are necessary in a business place.

He's constantly calling for the economy to reopen. But he doesn't seem very interested in protecting the people that work in our businesses or the customers that it services. And I've seen him on TV so many times, where everyone is wearing a mask but him. So here, our manufacturing facilities just went back online on Monday. And he really seemed very ambivalent about whether he was going to wear a mask or not. And it is the law of our state for him to do so.

KELLY: Were you more concerned about the actual health risk or the message being sent? You said you don't see the president taking this seriously.

NESSEL: I'd say it was a little bit of both. Firstly, we have had other Ford plants that had just reopened and had to close down because people started testing positive for COVID. And it's not just the human toll that that takes. It's incredibly expensive. It's bad for those companies. And it's bad for their workers.

But, yeah, more so the message that he was sending to everyone in our state. The last thing we want to hear is somebody in any of those businesses, in any of those factories say, well, the president of the United States doesn't have to wear a mask. Why do I? It sends the worst possible message at the worst possible time.

KELLY: Let me ask you about the goal of this back-and-forth with the president because it has continued. You called him a petulant child in a TV interview last night. He has since tweeted back at you and called you the wacky, do-nothing attorney general of Michigan. Do you risk fanning the flames, deepening partisan divisions by picking a fight with President Trump?

NESSEL: Well, I don't know how else to communicate with this man, right? I wrote him a very nice letter. I was very respectful in that letter. And I was very humble. And all I asked was for him to care about the residents of my state that I'm charged with protecting, and to have some basic decency for a community that he was in where so many lives have been lost. And he completely thumbed his nose at our state residents, you know? He doesn't respond to respectful requests. Apparently, these ridiculous tweets is the only type of communication he knows or understands.

KELLY: Let me ask about your state, specifically, because Michigan has been such a flashpoint. Setting aside the events at the factory yesterday, Michigan had some of the very first protests over the stay-at-home order. Republican lawmakers have filed lawsuits over the order. But when I look at polls, the state doesn't actually seem that divided, the public. One recent poll found 70% of people in Michigan thought the protests against the stay-at-home order sent the wrong message. Why do you think your state has become such a focal point for this debate playing out nationally?

NESSEL: Part of it is because we're a purple state. All of our executive offices are held by Democrats. And our legislature is - you know, the majorities in both the House and the Senate are held by Republicans. So that's probably part of it. But I will say this, you know, Michigan is the only state in the union where women hold our three executive offices. And we are also the only state where the president has individually targeted each one of us. So you know, you do the math.

KELLY: You're accusing him of having a particular issue with women.

NESSEL: Well, it certainly seems that way. I guess if any one of us were doing Secretary Pompeo's dishes, he might be fine with us. But since we're not and we're actually running the state of Michigan, he seems to have a real issue.

KELLY: I just want to ask again because I - there will be people listening who will hear that and say, that's a cheap shot. Do you risk fanning partisan flames at a moment when this country could really stand to come together?

NESSEL: OK. Look; this is an individual who has encouraged people to break the law in a manner that jeopardizes the health of all our state residents. And then when we have armed gunmen storming the Capitol holding swastikas and Confederate flags, he calls them very good people who our governor ought to negotiate with. I'm sorry, but if anyone has started this battle, it is certainly President Trump.

And, you know, sometimes you reap what you sow. And he is the cause of this consternation here. But not for his liberate Michigan tweets, I think most everyone in this state would have, you know, complied with the governor's orders, understanding that they were in place for one reason and one reason only - and that was, to protect people's lives. But because of his tweets and because of his statements, he has risked the health, safety and welfare of everyone who lives in this state. And I will not remain silent and just twiddle my thumbs as I see him do that.

KELLY: Dana Nessel, she is the attorney general of Michigan. Thank you very much for your time.

NESSEL: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "BAMBINA")

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