President Donald Trump on Friday returned to Maine for a visit designed to reaffirm his appeal with rural voters and to reframe his heavily criticized response to a coronavirus pandemic that threatens his bid for a second term.
The president’s attempt to boost his reelection hopes also included an appearance by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a controversial figure often considered a state-level prototype for Trump’s combative and divisive governing style.
The two Republicans quickly took aim at Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who succeeded LePage in 2019, and who warned Trump earlier this week that his trip could cause a security risk.
“You have a governor who doesn’t know what she’s doing,” Trump complained to LePage during a forum with commercial fishermen at a hangar at Bangor International Airport.
Trump was referring to Mills’ phased restart plan for the Maine economy.
“She’s like a dictator,” he said.
“Yes she is,” replied LePage, who later suggested that tourists should be stopped at Maine border crossings and be asked to provide their phone number and final destination as an alternative to the governor’s 14-day quarantine requirement for visitors.
The exchange underscored Trump’s yearning for a fast economic turnaround from the pandemic to boost his reelection hopes. It also illustrated the ambitions of LePage, who has talked about running against Mills since before he left office in 2018 and later became a resident of Florida.
Mills, in a statement responding to president’s attacks, described his event as a "rambling, confusing, thinly veiled political rally."
“I have spent the better part of my career listening to loud men talk tough to disguise their weakness. That’s what I heard today. I don’t care what the president says about me. I care what he does for Maine people. And that’s not very much,” she said.
The White House had billed the president’s visit as a celebration of Puritan Medical Products, a manufacturer making medical swabs for COVID-19 tests. The factory is located in the small town of Guilford in deeply conservative Pisqataquis County, part of the state’s sprawling 2nd Congressional District. Trump won the district in 2016 by 10 points to snag one of Maine’s four electoral votes.
The president ultimately didn’t need that single electoral vote to prevail in 2016, but he might in 2020.
In his speech at Puritan Medical Products, Trump mused about winning the entire state of Maine this year.
“I’d like to win the whole state. Would you mind, please?” Trump appealed to the crowd.
Polls of the president’s favorability in Maine suggest that he maintains significant support in the 2nd District, but he remains deeply unpopular in the 1st District.
His handling of the pandemic and the civil unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis Police, continues to dog his favorability among a majority of voters, according to national polls.
That has prompted Trump to recast the past three months as a success story even as the pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 110,000 Americans.
Trump on Friday claimed credit for shutting down the U.S. economy to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, many of the restrictions have been implemented by governors, resulting in a patchwork of rules and economic reopening strategies.
Additionally, the federal government repeatedly failed to deliver on the president’s promise in March that all Americans can get tested for the disease.
The testing issue has been a problem nationwide, as have supplies of personal protective equipment needed by health care workers to care for patients and administer tests.
Democrats have repeatedly blasted the president’s handling of the situation, which resulted in states competing against each other to secure protective equipment and testing materials.
That was the focus of former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, who released a statement ahead of the president’s visit to Maine.
“They (Maine residents) understand that President Trump was woefully late in acting on the coronavirus pandemic and fatally slow in providing PPE and tests to coronavirus hotspots. He’s now hoping we buy his revisionist history on his administration’s incompetent and bungled response to this public health crisis,” Biden said in the statement. “It’s a response that contributed to the deaths of 95 Mainers and has forced 168,000 Mainers to file for unemployment.”
That view was not shared by the president’s supporters, who began lining the streets in Guilford early Friday morning.
“He’s letting the governors, the mayors handle it, which is right,” Frank Gilbert, of nearby Abbot, said.
Gilbert, whose family members work at Puritan Medical Products, said the president will be criticized no matter what, and that he could have done more during his first term if Democrats hadn’t opposed him.
“He’s like a fish swimming upstream,” he said.
Gilbert and Gloria Robinson, of Greenville, both supported the president’s handling of protests in the nation’s capital, including the deployment of military police, who used chemical irritants and aggressive tactics to clear protesters so that the president could pose for a photo-op at a nearby church.
“You know, I’d rather see them tear-gassed than shot. I’d rather see them paint-balled than shot,” Robinson said.
Robinson said she didn’t care for the president until he called for an end to the looting that has marked some of the protests.
The military police’s use of force has disturbed others, including Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who this week criticized the president.
“It was painful to watch peaceful protesters be subjected to tear gas in order for the president to go across the street to a church I believe he’s attended only once,” Collins told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Trump took notice, citing Collins when he shared a column on Twitter from a conservative website that repeated White House claims that tear gas wasn’t used.
Collins, who is seeking her fifth consecutive term, is not attending the president’s visit. She remained at the capitol Friday and was scheduled to host a virtual fundraiser with South Dakota Sen. John Thune.
On Friday, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, who once hired Collins as a staffer when he represented Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, rebuked the president’s “politicalization of the military.”
“It’s not his military,” Cohen said during an interview on CNN. “It’s the American people’s military, and we are sworn to defend the Constitution, not to defend his office. And so, I find it very offensive that he would use our military to fire rubber bullets, or mace or other pepper spray into the eyes of innocent people in order to get a photo-op. That’s not a commander in chief, that’s a dictator in chief.”
Opponents of the president organized protests in Guilford and in Bangor, where Trump held a fishing industry forum before heading to the swab factory.
Jessica Alberti joined the protests in Guilford. She said was anxious about participating.
“Am I scared? Yup,” she said. “Black people are scared every freaking day they leave their house. So I can get out of my bubble and be scared for what I believe in because they have to be scared every freaking day and it’s insane to me.”
Earlier this week, Gov. Mills made national news when she told the president during a conference call with the nation’s governors that his visit could cause security problems for the state. She later called on Trump to strike a more unifying tone when he arrives here.
“I ask when you arrive here you rise above the language I heard this morning. I ask that you check the rhetoric at the door and abandon the divisive language that sows seeds of distrust among our people,” she said.
Large crowds of protesters and the president’s supporters converged near the Bangor airport Friday afternoon. There were reports of tense exchanges between the two sides, but no physical confrontations.
Alex Fergusson, of Orono, was one of the protesters at the Bangor airport. He held a sign telling Trump to “go back to your bunker,” a reference to reports that the president remained in the White House bunker during last weekend’s protests in D.C.
“I wish he would stay away and actually do something. He is showing absolutely no bravery, no attempt to actually fix anything in his self-declared war,” Fergusson said.
It’s unclear whether the president will return to Maine again before the November election. He campaigned in the state five times in 2016.
Maine Public reporters Robbie Feinberg and Jennifer Mitchell contributed to this story.