Trump visits Ford plant in Michigan in tense political and pandemic climate

The plant produces ventilators for patients suffering from COVID-19

President Trump visited the Ford Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., Thursday to tour the company's medical ventilator production line and deliver remarks at what he called a "rally" on the floor of the facility. 

"The beating heart of the American auto industry is back open for business," Trump said in his remarks, referring to the reopening of manufacturing facilities in the state. 

"The global pandemic has proven once and for all that to be a strong nation, America must be a manufacturing nation."

He referred to the ventilators being produced by Ford and others as the "great medical arsenal" of America. Ford employees demonstrated the equipment being produced onsite and walked the president through the assembly process.

"One month ago, Ford had never built a single ventilator, and now you're the leader of the world. That's not bad," Trump said of the company's effort.

When asked about personal protective equipment, Trump said he was told he was not required to wear a mask at the venue where he spoke to the press or the site where he delivered his remarks.  Ford employees confirmed to media onsite that the president was told he did not have to wear protective equipment for those portions of the event. 

Surrounded by Ford executives wearing masks, Trump told reporters he had put one on out of the view of cameras.

"I had one on before. I wore one in the back area. I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it," Trump said.

When asked if Trump was told it was acceptable not to wear a mask in the plant, Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford said, "It's up to him."

"Honestly I think I look better in a mask," Trump added jokingly.

The company later said in a statement that the chairman had "encouraged" Trump to wear a mask when he arrived, adding that the president had obliged during a private viewing of three two-seater Ford GT sports cars but then removed the face covering for the rest of the visit.

Trump has urged states to loosen coronavirus-related restrictions so the battered U.S. economy can recover, even as public health experts warn that premature relaxation of restrictions could lead to a second wave of infections.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, seen as a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is facing a backlash from some critics against her stay-at-home orders in a state hit hard by the last recession.

The governor announced more steps to reopen the state's economy on Thursday, offering timelines for the resumption of some businesses and allowing some social gatherings as long as guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus are observed.

In a news briefing on Thursday morning, Whitmer said effective immediately people could meet in groups of up to 10, so long as they observed social distancing restrictions. Retail stores and auto showrooms can resume operations by appointment beginning on May 26, while increased veterinarian, dental, and medical services will be allowed starting May 29.

"We've taken significant steps forward to re-engage our economy safely and responsibly over the past few weeks. Now we are going to take some time to ensure that these new measures are working," Whitmer said.

Trump on Wednesday threatened to withhold federal funding from Michigan over its plan for expanded mail-in voting, saying without offering evidence that the practice could lead to voter fraud — though he later appeared to back off the threat.

Trump was visiting Ypsilanti to tour the Ford plant that has been recast to produce ventilators and personal protective equipment and to discuss vulnerable populations hit by the virus in a meeting with African-American leaders.

Rising floodwaters, meanwhile, have caused more trouble in Michigan, displacing thousands of residents near the city of Midland. Whitmer told a news conference she spoke with Trump on Wednesday and he pledged federal support in the flood recovery.

"I made the case that, you know, we all have to be on the same page here. We've got to stop demonizing one another and really focus on the fact that the common enemy is the virus. And now it's a natural disaster," Whitmer told CBS News, describing her conversation with Trump.

Regarding Trump's funding threat, Whitmer said, "Threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary, and I think something that is unacceptable."

The Midwestern state ranks seventh among U.S. states with 53,009 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, a Reuters tally showed, with at least 5,060 deaths.

Trump and Ford have been at odds over its decision last year to back a deal with California for stricter vehicle fuel economy standards than his administration had proposed.

Trump first sparred with Ford during the 2016 campaign over the automaker's investments in Mexico and had vowed to slap hefty tariffs taxes on its vehicles made in Mexico.

Trump won narrowly in Michigan in the 2016 election, the first Republican to do since 1988.

Reuters reports contributed to this coverage.

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