(CNN)At a rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, President Donald Trump said something incredible — even by his standards.
Recounting how his campaign had to move the site of the rally to comply with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s Covid-19 protocols, Trump said this:
“I’ll remember it, Tom. I’m gonna remember it, Tom. ‘Hello, Mr. President, this is Governor Wolf, I need help, I need help.’ You know what? These people are bad.”
Let’s be very clear what Trump is doing here: He is threatening to withhold federal aid — or some sort of other assistance — the next time Pennsylvania needs it because the state’s governor, according to the President, made it difficult to find a site to hold a campaign rally. Yes, really.
Oh, and by the way, a spokeswoman for Wolf’s office insisted to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Trump’s version of this story is simply wrong — that the governor’s office sent a letter to Trump’s campaign earlier in the year requesting that they adhere to social distancing and masks guidelines, but that’s it.
“Outside of that, the administration has had no contact with the Trump campaign about its events,” wrote Wolf spokeswoman Sarah Goulet in an email to the Tribune-Review. “The Trump campaign is under no obligation to reach out to the administration when it is planning visits. We believe the campaign works directly with the owners of property or local officials when planning. Again, what the president said is inaccurate.”
It’s easy to lose sight of the abnormality of something like this because so much of what Trump says and does is deeply abnormal compared to the ways in which we have always seen our presidents act.
But we shouldn’t just gloss over comments like this. For a few reasons:
1) It shows, again, that Trump believes that the federal government is essentially a tool that he can use to reward friends and punish political enemies. We’ve seen this time after time during Trump’s first term — most notably at the Department of Justice, where the President has wondered aloud why the FBI and the CIA aren’t doing more to investigate, charge or put people he doesn’t like in jail. (Trump is never clear on the exact crimes for which his opponents should be incarcerated.)
Asked over the weekend about the plot to kidnap Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and whether he bears any sort of responsibility because of his rhetoric focused on her, Trump responded: “It was our Justice Department that is the one that’s helping her. My Justice Department, if you call it that.” My Justice Department. (Trump’s used that construction before. Who could forget his reference to “my generals” in reference to the US military commanders.)
For Trump, the power of the federal government isn’t really about doing the most good for the most people. It’s about him. It’s his government — to do with as he pleases.
2) There’s a chilling effect here. If you think other governors didn’t pay attention to Trump’s threat to Wolf, then you don’t know how aware state-level officials are of the power (and the purse) of the federal government. Trump’s willingness to make clear that he plans to exact revenge on a governor because of some alleged disagreement over where an event can be held suggests that he is would do the same to other governors who also slight him or make his life harder. That’s not the sort of thing that a governor wants to have to factor into their calculations about what’s best for their state.
Now, it’s possible that Trump loses his bid for a second term next Tuesday and never has a chance to make good on that threat to Wolf.
But that’s not really the point. Because what if, say, Pennsylvania is hit with some sort of natural disaster between now and January 20, 2021? Does Wolf really need to worry that because Trump thinks he got screwed on a venue to hold a rally that the state might not get the money it needs to effectively deal with its challenges? Of course not.
That’s the predicament Wolf finds himself in, however. Because he is dealing with the most radical — and norm-breaking — President ever to hold the job.