President Trump will visit the sharply divided battleground state of Pennsylvania on Thursday as he encourages a rebellion by local Republican officials against Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home coronavirus orders.
The president’s trip to the state where he trails presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden is intended to highlight the administration’s efforts providing N95 masks and surgical gowns, at an Owens and Minor Inc. distribution center in Lehigh County.
But the business is also located in the governor’s “red zone,” part of the state that won’t be allowed to reopen for nonessential business until June 4. And Mr. Trump is criticizing such long delays in getting back to business.
During a White House meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Trump praised the Democratic Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado and Republican Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota for swiftly and smoothly reopening their states.
“You’re opening up. You’re both doing an excellent job,” the president said.
The president also said reopening schools in the fall must be part of a state’s plan.
“I don’t consider our country coming back if the schools are closed,” he said. “It’s the governors’ choice, but the state is not open if the schools are not open.”
With more than 1.7 million Pennsylvanians — 26% of the workforce — thrown out of their jobs in the past two months, local officials and some business owners in the state’s 30-county red zone are vowing to defy Mr. Wolf’s orders. District attorneys in Republican-majority Berks and Lebanon counties said this week that they won’t enforce the governor’s directive to stay closed.
The governor responded by threatening to withhold coronavirus aid from counties that don’t comply, saying the defiant county officials were “operating illegally” and “jeopardizing the lives of citizens.”
“We’re all fighting this war together,” Mr. Wolf said on Wednesday. “We can’t run up the white flag. We have got to fight this to the end and make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep people safe. I don’t think that the Commonwealth has been unreasonable.”
State Sen. Scott Martin, a Republican from Lancaster County, questioned whether the governor has the authority to withhold federal aid to local communities. He said Mr. Wolf has imposed “one of the most Draconian lockdowns of all the states.”
“We had the only state that didn’t allow real estate to occur,” Mr. Martin said on “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday. “We were shutting down mom and pop businesses. Plus, he created an arbitrary waiver process where he gave about 6,100 of hand-chosen businesses across many industries the ability to continue to operate while shutting down the vast majority of our economy.”
The governor rejected a subpoena last week by Republican legislators for records of the administration’s waiver process. He released a list of the businesses that were allowed to stay open, but not the criteria for making the decisions.
Mr. Wolf on Wednesday noted that 24 of the state’s 67 counties eased some restrictions last week, and another 13 counties in western Pennsylvania will move to the “yellow” phase of reopening Friday.
“I think we’ve done it the right way,” Mr. Wolf said.
Mr. Trump, who is campaigning hard to win the state again, has joined in a public fight with the governor. The president said Monday that Pennsylvanians “want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails.”
“The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes. They would wait until November 3rd if it were up to them. Don’t play politics. Be safe, move quickly!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
At a press conference Monday, Mr. Trump again cited Pennsylvania as a state that is slow-walking its reopening for partisan purposes.
“There just seems to be no effort [in] certain blue states to get back into gear,” the president said. “And the people aren’t going to stand for it; they want to get back.”
The governor said of Mr. Trump’s visit, “I would urge anybody coming to Pennsylvania to respect our efforts to stay safe, to keep people safe and businesses, wherever he visits. I hope he does everything in his power to keep employees safe.”
U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat who represents Lehigh County, was more hostile about the president’s visit to her district.
“Pictures of the Lehigh Valley will look great in your next ad, but people aren’t getting sick along party lines,” she tweeted at the president. “It’s not about politics, it’s about policy — and you’ve failed them. So when you pose with our frontline workers, wear a mask. It’s literally the least you can do.”
To date, the president has yet to wear a mask anywhere near a TV camera. He said he wore one last week, out of view of the media, while touring a mask-manufacturing plant in Arizona.
Ms. Wild, who became the first Democrat to represent the Lehigh Valley since 1999 when she replaced the retiring Republican Charlie Dent in 2018, also tweeted at the president, “How can you pose for pictures with the people you’re trying to take health care from? Your ACA lawsuit is ongoing during a pandemic!”
In a state of 12.8 million, Pennsylvania has had more than 58,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,900 deaths. The state ranks 9th in deaths per 100,000 population; infection rates are higher in the more populous southeast and eastern regions, including Philadelphia.
The battle over reopening comes less than six months before Mr. Trump hopes to capture Pennsylvania in November against Mr. Biden, who is a native of the state, though he represented Delaware in Congress. The president narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016, becoming the first GOP presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988 to do so.
But Mr. Biden is leading the president by 6.5 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. The Lehigh Valley is considered a swing district, along with the suburban counties that ring the Democratic bastion of Philadelphia.
A Republican operative in Pennsylvania said a victory there by Mr. Trump is “certainly possible, but I don’t think it’s probable at this point.”
“There’s the coronavirus, and the unemployment rate is higher,” said the operative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the party’s chances. “I think that just has to hurt the incumbent president. I think overall his prospects are diminishing in Pennsylvania.”
Democrats in Pennsylvania have made gains in elections in all three years since Mr. Trump took office, including a net gain of three U.S. House seats in 2018.
“A lot of educated, suburban white women are the ones who are bailing in big numbers,” the Republican said. “The acceleration of that erosion has increased significantly since Trump became president. The suburban problems got worse. Look at the elections in 2017, ‘18 and ‘19. We saw what happened in the Virginia suburbs [of Washington, D.C.]. We all talked about the Philadelphia suburbs. This has been a real problem since Trump took office, and anybody who’s honest about it will acknowledge it.”
A Trump campaign memo leaked this week said internal polling data from 17 key battleground states shows that Mr. Trump is “closing the gap against Joe Biden — from nine points down three weeks ago to tied now at 48 points each.”
The memo stated that the Trump campaign’s new ads “are successfully defining Joe Biden’s weakness on foreign policy and disastrous record with China — voters are less likely to vote for Biden after seeing our ads.”
It also said Americans increasingly trust the president over Mr. Biden, by 15 percentage points, to rebuild the economy.
“Fifty-five percent of respondents believe their state is now ready to reopen safely, compared to just two weeks ago when 55 percent said they weren’t,” the campaign memo stated.