coronavirus

New York reaches a coronavirus breaking point with Trump

New York’s mayor projects raw anguish, while the governor pursues an on-again/off-again truce with the Trump administration.

Bill de Blasio

NEW YORK — For weeks, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has mostly played nice with the Trump administration, taking a calm and measured approach toward the federal government — even as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has lashed out at Trump for neglecting his home town in a public health crisis.

The differing temperaments between the two officials – Cuomo with a cool executive air bordering on aloofness, de Blasio with an us-against-them pugnaciousness – provided a stark contrast to people outside the tri-state area who were just tuning in to New York’s growing coronavirus crisis.

That appeared to change on Tuesday, when Cuomo directed the full weight of his fury at the administration as the spread of coronavirus in his state threatened to spiral out of control.

“The president says it’s a war,” Cuomo fumed, his voice rising at a press conference at the Javits Center, the massive Manhattan convention hall now being turned into an emergency hospital. “Well then act like it’s a war!”

Faced with New York’s need for 30,000 ventilators to keep virus patients alive when the spread of the virus peaks - which could happen in as soon as two weeks - the federal government had sent 400 from its stockpile.

"You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators," an angry Cuomo demanded.

But within a day — after a mollifying conversation with Trump — Cuomo was back on his steady course.

"It's something our team is working on with the White House team and I want to thank the president for his cooperation and his team for their cooperation," Cuomo said on Wednesday, referring to the supply-chain problems facing New York’s medical authorities.

Cuomo’s calculation seems to be that a softer approach would get him further with a president known for being susceptible to flattery.

“I can tell you he is fully engaged on trying to help New York. He’s being very creative and very energetic, and I thank him for his partnership,” Cuomo said last week, after chatting with Trump about a Navy ship dispatched to New York harbor to serve as an emergency hospital.

That ship, the USNS Comfort, it turned out, would not be ready for weeks. And so it has gone in Cuomo’s two-step with Trump on the health crisis, where gains for New York have often been followed by setbacks.

De Blasio has been less delicate with the president, consistently berating him for a slow federal response to the spiraling health crisis. “The fate of New York City rests in the hands of one man. He is a New Yorker. And right now, he is betraying the city he comes from,” the mayor told reporters last week.

In other appearances, de Blasio has labeled Trump his generation’s Herbert Hoover for his response to the pandemic and accompanying economic crash.

As the first cases of coronavirus hit New York, both men sought to avoid panic, encouraging New Yorkers to go about their lives while taking sensible precautions. They even held a dual press conference at the beginning of the month.

That was a rare occasion for two men whose dislike of each other is well known to their New York constituents. De Blasio, who won a longshot bid for mayor in 2013, fashioned himself the progressive alternative to Cuomo's brand of centrism, but the governor seemed to delight in undermining him at every turn. In their six years in office, they've feuded over matters as grave as the spiraling homeless population and dire conditions in the city's public housing and as trivial as the fate of a single deer found in Harlem.

When coronavirus hit, both shared an interest in sparing New Yorkers from the brunt of the virus. But as circumstances grew more dire, and much of New York was forced into shutdown, their approaches diverged -- and occasionally devolved into the one-upmanship that has long characterized their relationship outside times of crisis. When de Blasio warned New Yorkers last week to prepare for a shelter in place order, Cuomo quickly shot down the idea. Days later, Cuomo issued just such an order, but said he did not want to call it shelter in place because the term is alarmist.

Cuomo pre-empted de Blasio’s announcement that New York City schools would close, making the news public just moments before de Blasio did. On Sunday, the two had wildly different takes on how city-dwellers were responding to the state’s stay at home order, with Cuomo saying he was so dissatisfied that New York City needed to come up with a plan within 24 hours to ensure people followed instructions.

Cuomo, who has marshaled sweeping emergency powers for himself in the midst of the crisis at the expense of localities like New York City, sought to project command of the situation and stuck with a mostly measured tone, leaving it to de Blasio to sound the alarm about the federal government’s perceived failures.

Trump seemed to notice the difference, dismissing de Blasio when he was asked about the mayor’s charges of betrayal. “I’m not dealing with him. I’m dealing with the governor. And the governor agrees with me, and I agree with him,” he said on Friday. “I guess they’re not agreeing with each other, necessarily.”

Yet by Tuesday, as the fast-moving pandemic claimed more New Yorkers’ lives, the mayor and the governor were united in their anger at the Trump administration. As Cuomo lashed out in his Javits Center press conference, de Blasio warned that the few ventilators the feds have delivered would buy the city only days.

“Some days you need the carrot, and some days you need the stick. Today is a stick day,” said New York political strategist Stu Loeser, who was press secretary to former Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

He said that Cuomo’s anger, deployed sparingly, could be more effective than the bashing from de Blasio, who has criticized Trump more consistently during the pandemic and lacked the same “give and take.”

“I think Gov. Cuomo wakes up every morning, to the degree that he sleeps, looks at the data on infections in New York, and looks as best he can at the president’s mood, and sets his course for the day based on both of those pieces of information,” he said.

In a virtual town hall from the White House’s Rose Garden Tuesday, the tentative truce between Cuomo and the administration still seemed intact, with Vice President Mike Pence saying he’s had continued meetings with both Cuomo and de Blasio and publicly assuring leaders the federal government “will make those resources available.” Four thousand ventilators will be sent to the state in the next two days, Pence said.

But Trump did not take as well to his sometime ally’s criticism. The president appeared next in the Fox News event and railed on Cuomo for “complaining,” saying the federal government is doing “definitely more than anybody else” when it comes to helping out the state. Trump referred to a report — presumably this op-ed that ran in the New York Post by former Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, a Republican — saying that in 2015 the state declined the option to buy thousands of ventilators.

“I'm not blaming him or anything else,” Trump said. “But he shouldn't be talking about us. He's supposed to be buying his own ventilators. We are going to help. But if you think about Governor Cuomo, we are building him four hospitals. We are building him four medical centers. We are working very, very hard for the people of New York. We are working along with him. Then I watch him on this show complaining.”

Then Trump name-checked Cuomo on Wednesday afternoon, near the top of the White House coronavirus briefing, announcing that he spoke to the governor on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday and that he recognized “they’ve got a number of very tough weeks ahead of them.”

“The governor is doing a very good job,” he said, before going on to highlight the federal response in New York. “I want you to know that I’m doing everything in my power to help the city pull through this challenge. I'm working hard in New York.“

For Cuomo, who has mobilized his resources and Rolodex to unparalleled levels this month, the tone shift on Tuesday seemed based on an inability to understand why the federal government wouldn’t similarly exhaust all avenues. The federal government can order manufacturers to build ventilators under the Federal Defense Production Act, Cuomo said. He, as governor, cannot.

“Only the federal government has that power,” Cuomo said. “And not to exercise that power is inexplicable to me.”