Mass. officials respond to Trump over coronavirus aid and sanctuary cities

President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the federal government should use coronavirus relief aid to states to apply pressure on so-called sanctuary cities received rebukes from both sides of the political aisle Wednesday in Massachusetts.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters that it was “the wrong way to do this,” while Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat, noted that Trump has tended to stoke partisan flames by changing the subject to immigration whenever he “gets his back up against the wall.”

“I think he should be focused on what’s in front of us,” Walsh said. “COVID-19.”

Trump’s sanctuary city comments came as the number of Americans who have tested positive for the virus officially surpassed 1 million on Tuesday, which makes up roughly a third of the reported infections worldwide. During a press briefing Tuesday at the White House, the Republican president was asked about aid to states, which has become a focal point of the negotiations over the next coronavirus relief package.

Democrats have pushed for robust relief for states — which have incurred both rising expenses to confront the public health crisis as well as steep revenue declines due to the economic shutdown — so that local governments aren’t forced to cut public services. However, Republican leaders have resisted those calls; Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, has even suggested that states should be allowed to declare bankruptcy.

Trump said Tuesday that the federal government shouldn’t provide a “bailout” to states with preexisting financial problems, without naming any specific examples. He suggested other policies should be on the table in return.

“We’d have to talk about things like payroll tax cuts,” Trump said. “We’d have to talk about things like sanctuary cities. I think sanctuary cities is something that has to be brought up — where people that are criminals are protected.”

Since the beginning of his 2016 campaign, Trump has consistently railed against sanctuary cities, which generally limit the ability of local police to cooperate with federal efforts to deport undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes; advocates point to research indicating that the policy fosters trust between immigrant communities and police — and may even be associated with lower overall crime rates. Still, Trump has seized on individual instances of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes after being released due to a local sanctuary policy to back up his hardline approach to immigration.

During a separate event Tuesday afternoon, Trump added that Republicans should ask for “sanctuary city adjustments” in return for coronavirus relief to states.

“We have so many people in sanctuary cities, which I don’t even think are popular, even by radical-left folks,” he said. “Because what’s happening is people are being protected that shouldn’t be protected and a lot of bad things are happening with sanctuary cities.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, dozens of cities and towns in Massachusetts, including Boston, have passed some form of a sanctuary ordinance.

While opposed to efforts to make Massachusetts a so-called sanctuary state, Baker has supported the right of cities and towns to implement their own policies.

During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, the governor said Trump’s comments went against the intention of the coronavirus relief legislation, which is “supposed to be driven in large part by the impact COVID-19 has had on those states.” He added that hard-hit states like New York should get more funding as a result.

“I don’t think it should be driven by something that, in the grand scheme of things, really doesn’t have much of a relationship to the question at hand here, which is a desire on Congress’s part — and I assume on the administration’s part — to help states and localities and tribes and others to sort of rebuild or create for the first time the infrastructure that they need to trace, track, test, and monitor COVID-19 going forward,” he said.

“I will make clear to people that I think that’s the wrong way to do this,” Baker said, referring to Trump’s comments. “But based on a lot of what was in the legislation, that doesn’t seem consistent with the way the law is written.”

In a separate press conference Wednesday afternoon, Walsh pushed back more firmly, criticizing Trump for politicizing a pandemic to push his political “agenda.”

“These suggestions — or threats — by the White House are uncalled for,” the mayor told reporters. “They’re not going to solve either the public’s health or the immigration challenges that we have in our country. … People are hurting. People are dying. People are scared. This is a time for leadership.”

Walsh said that elected officials should be working together to address COVID-19 — but also took a dig at the Trump administration’s beleaguered response to the outbreak when asked if he was concerned that Boston could pay the price for its sanctuary policy. Walsh said he wasn’t.

“Right now, the response that the federal government has shown on getting PPE and testing out, I don’t know how much slower they can go on some of this stuff, so I’m not concerned about that,” he said.