PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Vice President Mike Pence spent much of his afternoon address to the nation’s governors on Friday making sure they know how much Donald Trump loves them. But a majority of the state leaders gathered here this week spent much of their three-day summer meeting pretending the president doesn’t exist.
When a group of seven Democratic governors stood in front of a cramped hotel meeting room Friday morning to decry the GOP’s health care plan, for all 30 minutes they avoided saying the polarizing words “Donald Trump.”
Just hours later, the independent governor of Alaska spent the better part of a conversation over a cup of coffee extolling the virtues of administration officials from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt without ever mentioning the president by name.
And in the halls of the Rhode Island Convention Center and surrounding hotels, Republican, Democratic, and Independent governors alike flitted from meetings with their U.S. colleagues to sit-downs with their counterparts from Canada, Mexico and other foreign countries — aiming to patch up international relationships that Trump himself has threatened.
At the tail end of the National Governors Association’s three-day summer meeting, the lengths to which the country’s state executives went to sidestep the issue of the disruptive president underscored just how much the current Oval Office occupant has rewired the political environment, confounded its participants and upended their usual way of doing business. For many of them, the safest play is to avoid the matter altogether.
"When I deal with all these governors here, Democrat or Republican, I’m not sure his name has even come up," said Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the NGA chairman who is mentioned as a prospective Trump challenger in 2020. "You would think it would be a big topic of discussion, it’s almost like he’s a non-factor, no one’s even talking about him."
Neither the White House’s most prominent allies nor its loudest detractors in governor’s mansions made it to Rhode Island to begin with, significantly dampening what could have been a charged atmosphere. New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Florida’s Rick Scott — both close Republican Trump associates — skipped the meeting, as did frequent Trump critics like fellow Republican John Kasich of Ohio and Democrats Andrew Cuomo of New York, Jerry Brown of California, and Jay Inslee of Washington.
Instead, Trump’s uneven relationship with other governors was in the spotlight. Few of the GOP governors supported him early in his 2016 campaign, but with 27 of the 38 governors’ mansions up for grabs in 2018 held by Republicans, Trump casts a large shadow over the midterm election map. Some red state governors have rushed toward him with open arms, while GOP state executives in Democrat-heavy states — like Illinois’ Bruce Rauner, Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker, and Maryland’s Larry Hogan — have strained to avoid mentioning him altogether.
At the summer meeting, Republican governors from states that have expanded Medicaid sought to avoid committing themselves to either side of the pitched health care debate on Capitol Hill while the Democrats in attendance urged bipartisanship, resisting the urge to knock the White House that’s been pushing the measure.
“There is a sense, with most of the things we deal with on a day-to-day basis, we can deal with them now in the states,” said Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, insisting that the governors’ common refrain about their political independence is still true. “Without waiting around for an answer out of Washington."
Indeed, on policy after policy, governors whistled past the White House.
When it came to trade, they aligned themselves with counterparts from Canada and Mexico — many of whom traveled to Rhode Island for that specific purpose — in a bid to get distance from the White House and present an otherwise united North American front just one month before NAFTA’s renegotiation begins.
As Trump continues entertaining protectionist ideas like removing the country from NAFTA altogether or slapping tariffs and other import restrictions on trading partners, many governors have directly reached out to foreign capitals to create working trade relationships.
That strategic circumventing of the West Wing “is reassuring to our allies,” said Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, pointing to $2 billion worth of Chinese investments in his state as an example of what’s at stake. “This is a big deal for us.”
The very presence of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the event — the first-ever visit of a foreign leader to the NGA meeting — thrust into the spotlight Canada’s efforts to move beyond Trump’s rhetoric about reshaping the country’s trade regime, aiming to work at the state level to encourage bilateral trade and protect NAFTA.
Asked whether such an effort was sensible given the anti-free trade sentiment emanating from Trump’s White House, Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval didn’t hesitate: “Of course it makes sense.”
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said, “and it’s an opportunity that we have just barely touched."