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Transcript: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on "Face the Nation," Jan. 21, 2024

Full interview: Gretchen Whitmer on "Face the Nation"
Full interview: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on "Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan" 25:08

The following is a transcript of an interview with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that aired on Jan. 21, 2024.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Governor, thank you for having us here in Michigan.

GOVERNOR GRETCHEN WHITMER:  I'm glad you're here.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, you won reelection by 10 points, Democrats swept the government here. And you tied a lot of your candidacy to the issue of abortion, which was also on the ballot. How much of a democratic win do you attribute to that one issue?

GOV. WHITMER:  I think it really did mobilize a lot of people and brought a lot of people who are not traditional Democratic voters to the conversation and- and gave me their support as well, because I was the one fighting for these fundamental rights that we'd had for 50 years that were at risk of being ripped away. I'd held roundtables all across the state and listened to people, I think that's an art. And it was really maybe sometimes lost in this moment, in this country. But it was fascinating to hear women who showed up who said,"I didn't vote for you in 2018. I'm not a Democrat. But I'm out knocking doors for you, because you're the only one fighting for my rights, my daughter's rights." And it was a powerful motivator. So I do think that people understand this fundamental right is absolutely crucial.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  And that you think you saw crossover vote- voters here in Michigan?

GOV. WHITMER:  I believe that for sure. And I would also say I- if you look at what happened in Ohio last year, in Kansas, was the first state, we've seen pretty red states pretty conservative, you know, leaning states robustly support the right to abortion. The right for a woman to make her own decisions and reproductive freedom is a motivator.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  So there are roughly nine states, maybe more, but battlegrounds like Arizona, where access to abortion may be on the ballot as well this year. Why do you think that that may benefit Joe Biden and his reelection? Why do you think?

GOV. WHITMER:  Alright, you know, those nine states have a specific thing at the state level, but abortion is on the ballot in all 50 states. Abortion is on the ballot for every one of us. Because if we--  

MARGARET BRENNAN: --Theoretically speaking you're saying?

GOV. WHITMER: Well if we elect a Donald Trump or a Nikki Haley, or a Ron DeSantis, they all have pledged to sign a national abortion ban. And so in a state like--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --They haven't signed, no, Donald Trump hasn't said what he's going to do. He just said six weeks is too much for him.

GOV. WHITMER: He's also the one out there taking credit for the Supreme Court ripping this right away with the Dobbs decision that overruled Roe v. Wade. So it is very clear that abortion is on this ballot for all of us. And I think that's why it's so important that we are out barnstorming Michigan, because in a state where we just not rejected Dobbs, but we took it a step further by expanding access to reproductive freedom, we also are at risk of losing that if Joe Biden's not the president of the United States after this next election.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you brought up Nikki Haley, she makes the point that to pass a federal law, you would need- to restore what was in Roe vs. Wade, Democrats would need 60 Senate votes, they'd need to be able to get through the House and they'd need the presidency. That math isn't there. So that claim that Democrats could secure the right, isn't that giving people false hope? Just like promising to ban it is a false pledge. It's just - the math doesn't add up.

GOV. WHITMER:  I don't think so. Because right now, one in three women in this country live in a state where they have no access to reproductive freedom, to make their own decision. If they have a partial miscarriage at home or sepsis, or they're at the- reproductive health is at risk. They have no ability to get that- that service. And so this is why I think if a Donald Trump is president, or any of the people on the Republican side right now, unfortunately is, they are going to promote an abortion ban for all of us. Right now, this president has said he is absolutely going to fight for reproductive freedom, even if he doesn't have a Congress that will send that bill to his desk. Him being in the White House keeps a national ban from happening.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're saying if, somehow, Republicans were to sweep the Senate and sweep the House, Joe Biden would veto that bill. But--


MARGARET BRENNAN: You actually think that that's a legitimate promise to make to voters? Because Joe Biden doesn't talk about abortion much, and in fact, he has said he's not big on it because of his faith. Does he need to talk about it more?

GOV. WHITMER:  I think it would be good if he did, I know that one tenet of his belief system is that women and only women at- with their families and- and healthcare professionals are the ones who know what decision is right for them. And that he is fighting and going to continue to fight to make sure that that is squarely the ability of- of an American woman to make that decision.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You think he needs to be the messenger on that more?

GOV. WHITMER: I don't think it would hurt. I think people want to know that this is a president that is fighting. And I think he has said that, to use maybe more- more- you know, blunt language, maybe that would be helpful. But he's- that's his position. And that's why I am absolutely confident that when people see this matchup and really understand the stakes of this upcoming election, that, too, could be a motivator for people to come out and vote.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So here in Michigan, it is now protected under law, access to abortion. Viability is decided by a health care professional who determines the likelihood of the fetus's survival outside the uterus. Practically speaking, science is going to improve. Viability is going to move closer and closer to conception. This is one of those challenges. Is this an issue that just gets litigated again and again, and again?

GOV. WHITMER:  I think I have come to the conclusion that a right that was there for almost my whole life, I'm 52, is now very much in jeopardy, and that I'm gonna have to continue to fight to protect this right. The Roe standard was a question about viability, did have, I think, real- made a lot of sense. And- and I think that's why you see people coming out in states all across America and saying we're demanding this right. And that should be the standard.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Well, Roe had viability, the presumption being that was roughly around 24 weeks. That is moving closer and closer to conception. So you're saying even though you had this win in Michigan, it's not a closed matter, it- it's a continued fight?

GOV. WHITMER: Absolutely. I- really, I mean, we made great strides here. But no one should feel complacent that this work is done. A national ban would upend everything that we've accomplished here. Everything they accomplished in Ohio--

MARGARET BRENNAN: When you say national ban, what do you mean?

GOV. WHITMER: I- you look at the Speaker of the House right now has- has absolutely vowed that he supports a national ban, sending something to the President's desk that bans, whether it's after six weeks--


MARGARET BRENNAN: He's also said the votes aren't there for it. He admits the math--

GOV. WHITMER: At this moment.



GOV. WHITMER: But that can change. And that's why codifying this, right, having someone in the White House who would veto it if we see legislation like that passed through the Congress is going to be really important.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you don't think viability needs to be more sharply defined, either where you restrict access, or, you know, like, there are calls, for example, as you know, in Congress to- to pick 15 weeks, to pick a date on a calendar. Why do you reject that premise?

GOV. WHITMER: Well, I don't think Congress should be picking anything, I don't think politicians should be telling women when they can and can't make this decision. I believe that the Roe standard had viability and that is for a doctor to determine and I'm comfortable with that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So in the 50 years, Roe v. Wade was in place, there was no national consensus, there just never was. That's why there were no laws crafted. Do you actually think there is a national consensus on abortion now?

GOV. WHITMER: I think that the majority of people expect to have the right to make their own decisions about their body. The most important, profound economic decision a woman and her family will make over the course of their lifetime, is whether and when to bear a child. Only that person knows what the answer is to that, with advice from medical professionals. And that's why it should be squarely their ability to make that decision.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Now, when you say it's an economic issue, there are a lot of economic issues that go alongside raising children. Do you think the Biden administration needs to campaign more on the issue of expanding access to- to more affordable child care, something that didn't happen during this first administration? There are other issues related to child care, as you know, that are a crises for many American women. Why not talk more about that, and less about the procedure of abortion?

GOV. WHITMER: I think we should do all of the above. And we want to make sure that Americans have the ability to raise children when they decide that they want to have a child, that it's easier for them to find child care that is affordable, that is high quality. We want to make sure that when they enroll their children in schools, that they're getting the kinds of supports they need to be successful. We've done a lot of this in Michigan, I know that the agenda that we've been able to get accomplished here is the same set of values that President Biden has and will continue to fight for these things. But I think at the end of the day, it's not one or the other. We have to do all of the above. Empower American women to make their own choices, but support American families to be successful, to be able to get ahead, to be able to put food on the table and to find their path to prosperity.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So how do you make up for the challenge that we're seeing, and we're seeing it in our polling, because women think access to reproductive care is getting harder, not easier. And more than half of those polled by CBS say it's becoming more dangerous. How do you make up for those healthcare deserts in parts of the country?

GOV. WHITMER: Well, the worst thing you can do is cut off access to- to medical ability, to- whether it's around abortion or obtain contraception, cut off access to women being able to get health care on, you know, through telehealth, for instance. There's a real problem here, when you've got women in all the states surrounding my neighbor, Tim Walz, Minnesota, who are coming into Minnesota because they can't get the basic health care that they need. So it is great that we have states that are nearby that people can go to, but that's not real access. That's not real help. When we require women to figure out how to take time off of work and find child care just so they can get basic health care, that means that we are second-class citizens. And that's why expansion of- of health care, that means expansion of telehealth and the ability to access medicine when you need it, is- is crucial.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you fundamentally believe that needs to come from the federal government, from the state government, or is that a private industry solution?

GOV. WHITMER: I think it needs to be all hands on deck, to be honest. It- women in states where they don't have state leaders who are trying to do that are relying on the federal government for help, or relying on the- the private sector. And when you get that coverage, we're more productive, our economy is stronger, and most importantly, individual American families are stronger.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you satisfied with the Biden administration's messaging on these specific matters related to women?

GOV. WHITMER: You know, I know that this administration is doing the work and they roll up their sleeves, and I appreciate that. They've been phenomenal partners to us here. I think all Democrats and all people who are- are on the right side of this issue need to use their voices, need to be very clear to the American public. There's so much noise out there, there's so many stressors that people are confronting, that it's hard to- to cut through sometimes, and it's no fault of anyone. A lot of American families are just trying to help their chil- children get their homework done, and get to school on time and put food on the table and get home from work in time to spend a little time before the kids go to bed. We've got to be very clear about how high the stakes are and what our priorities are. So I always think there's- there's always more work to do on that front.

MARGARET BRENNAN:   Because our polling is showing that the President is underperforming with the Democratic base. This is Black voters, this is Hispanic voters. Is the issue of abortion access enough of a halo effect to make up for that lack of enthusiasm and the frustration?

GOV. WHITMER: Well, I always remind people in the months leading up to my reelection, there were a lot of pundits who were writing my political obituary. She's never going to get reelected. She led through a pandemic and people are very divided and a Democrat in the White House. I ended up winning by almost 11 points. I'm not dismissing polls. I think that they are an important piece of data that should inform additional outreach. But I'm also not, I'm not getting, you know, I'm not freaking out. What I hear from people is a sense of urgency. A sense of how serious this moment is in this country. And I- I respect that and know that's why we've got to continue to show up and continue to talk about these fundamental issues that Americans and American families need solved.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It's not just the polls, though, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, I'm sure you know, he said he's not worried, but he's very concerned about black voters showing up for President Biden in November. He's got a pretty good sense of his state. Are you concerned, here in Michigan, about this state staying blue?

GOV. WHITMER: I think everyone should always focus on Michigan. It's always going to be close in this state. Even though we did something that hadn't been done in 40 years by flipping the House and the Senate and all democratic controlled at the moment. It's- the work is never done. You cannot make any assumptions about what the next election is going to bring, based on the last one in a state like this. You got to show up. You got to do the work and show people that you really care about them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It's still a purple state.

GOV. WHITMER: Absolutely.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And Michigan is still up for play.

GOV. WHITMER: Absolutely. Oh, I think it always will be.

MARGARET BRENNAN: That blue wall of the Midwest, you think no longer exists?

GOV. WHITMER: Well, I think that we- we've resurrected it to an extent. And we've made it easier for people to participate in elections, which I think is really important as we think about the great turnout we saw last cycle. We saw the biggest youth turnout in the country was right here in the state of Michigan. And I am proud of that, but certainly don't take any of that for granted.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to talk a little bit about the economy. Our polling, I know you said you don't totally trust polls, but by a 49 to 21 margin, voters believe former President Trump will be better for their finances than President Biden. There's a big deficit here on the economy. And that shows up as the number one issue for voters. So why do you think this perception exists? How do you fix it?

GOV. WHITMER: You know, I- I think that when you look at what's happening with the economy here in Michigan, and- and this is true nationwide, we're seeing unemployment at historic lows. We're seeing take home pay going up. I think that we have seen a lot of progress happen; inflation coming down. These are important factors that take time for people to really see the benefit from.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The cost of living is still high.

GOV. WHITMER: The cost of living is still high, and for a young person to buy a home, that is out of reach for more people than- than it has been in a long time. And so I think that all the work around affordable housing, the story that this President is going to be able to tell as people start to tune in closer, as we get closer to the election, is going to be powerful. He is focused on making it more affordable for people to get skills so they can get into good paying jobs. He's made great investments and making sure we're bringing supply chains home and securing the American economy and creating good paying jobs. He's made investments, where everyone else has talked about infrastructure week, we're doing the work, and people are going to be able to see that I think that's going to be powerful, when voters actually start to make up their minds and go to the polls.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So when do you think that is? When do you think that you'll start being more concerned or more optimistic on the polling?

GOV. WHITMER: Well, I, you know, what-, I'm the type of person who is going to be concerned until the last vote is counted. And, you know, and certified. So I- in a state like this, like-

MARGARET BRENNAN: In a state like Michigan- where that was an issue in the last- do you have concerns about that, in this upcoming election?

GOV. WHITMER: I'm always concerned that there will be people who try to create chaos around the election and try to misinform people and perhaps threaten election workers or try to undermine whatever the outcome is. And so that's something that is still a very real possibility in my mind, after what we've gone through the last two cycles, and I can't take any of it for granted.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Half of those polled by CBS expect that whoever loses the election will be the cause of some political violence in this country. That's a pretty stunning thing for Americans to believe. Are you worried about Michigan in particular, given the experience with extremism you've had here?


Well, I think one of the most dangerous things to our democracy and to our people is the recent, you know, proliferation of people who are willing to take up weapons and threaten people they disagree with. It's unacceptable.


Threaten you.


Yeah. And, and- people of goodwill on both sides of the aisle have got to take this on. And we've only seen it coming from the Democratic side so far. I think that does a disservice to every one of us, because it's not limited to being aimed at one person or another. We all pay a price when that's the case here. So, I do think that we all have to take this seriously.

MARGARET BRENNAN:What are you doing to prepare for 2024?

GOV. WHITMER: Well, I'm proud to say that we have been able to enact a number of laws that make it easier for people to participate, that give them the ability to show up early to vote in-person, that pre register 16 year olds for when they turn 18, that they'll be registered voters. We're doing a lot of things to streamline that system and I think that will help alleviate some of the election day crush. And we also have penalized people who make threats to election workers. I think that's something really important too that we've been able to get done.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So this state in particular, it's Michigan, it's an auto state. The future of the industry, and electric vehicles in particular, which President Biden has placed a very big bet on, is very dependent on the outcome of this next election and the federal subsidies to make that transition to electric vehicles. Are you disappointed that the Auto Workers Union, the UAW, has not endorsed President Biden yet?

GOV. WHITMER: So, I think that the UAW is, they've got new leadership. They've just landed a historic contract with the big three and their, their members are feeling really good as they should. It's really fantastic to see. I think that ultimately, they'll go through their process, and I'm, I believe that they will endorse the president. But I also think it's a good thing, that it's not just a foregone conclusion that that happens. You get to earn the support of people, whether it's voters or a union, or you know, a business executive. You've got to earn individual support. And I think that their process will make sense. And I'm confident the President will be, will be the person that they end up supporting.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did Shawn Fain tell you that?


MARGARET BRENNAN: He told us back in September that just like you said, President Biden has to earn the endorsement of the Union. Does that mean the President hasn't earned it yet? I mean, if it's not public, what, what are they waiting for?

GOV. WHITMER: They have a process. And I respect that. I think that's important. You know, it doesn't do the President or or any endorsed candidate any good, if people think that they didn't, they don't have a reason for endorsing, that they haven't earned the support. I think that's it's an important thing to do, and that's why I use that terminology. Because I come from this state, I've been fortunate to have earned support of a lot of different organizations. And I don't take any of it for granted.

MARGARET BRENNAN: This could be, as you said, another close election. So I have to ask you, since there are roughly 300,000 people in this state who identify as Arab American, you have a large Muslim American population. There is a lot of pain and frustration with the President's support of Israel and its military campaign. How will he be received by this community when he comes to visit this month?

GOV. WHITMER: Well, no community is monolithic. I'll start with that. I will say that one of the great things about the state is, this is where people came to from around the world for a good paying job and a high quality of life. It's true today, but it's why we have such a robust and beautiful Arab community in Michigan, and a robust Jewish community in Michigan. These two communities have lived as neighbors in harmony for decades. And what's happening in Israel and Gaza has certainly, I think, caused pain for everyone. My job as governor has been to stay close to both communities, to work with the Biden administration to get people out of the region and home, which we were successful in doing. To try to make sure that I can do everything to keep people safe, whether they're worshiping in a synagogue or a mosque. And I understand the pain that people are feeling. And that's why I'm- I regularly stay in contact, I listen, and I ask, "how can I be supportive?" But you are correct. I think that there is a lot of- a lot of angst around what is happening and a lot of personal pain. And my hope is that we will see some resolution soon. But I don't know if that'll be the case and that's why I'm going to continue to stay close to both communities.

MARGARET BRENNAN: As we spoke to one of your constituents last night, who said he went door to door for Joe Biden in 2020. But he's lost his vote in 2024. And he said he plans to protest against him. Is President Biden going to face protesters when he comes here, because of this one issue?

GOV. WHITMER: He may, I also know that, you know, this beautiful, robust community that- that I- I've loved so much, and that I've been so fortunate to have the support from over the years, is also not monolithic, right. A lot of voters are gonna vote for things like individual freedoms, like the basis of our democracy, climate change. So there are a lot of things that are going to come into play as we get closer and closer to the election. But certainly, these are legitimate and raw feelings that, that people have, and they're entitled to their opinions.  

MARGARET BRENNAN: I'm being told we are out of time. But I want to just quickly ask you, since we see, immigration is a top issue for voters across the country, President Biden was asked Friday if the border was secure and he said no, and it hasn't been for a decade. Do you feel the White House was late in acknowledging that this is an emergency around the country?

GOV. WHITMER: Well I mean, it's been an emergency and it's not been working for a long, long time. Let's just be clear about that, over the course of many administrations, both parties. We believe, I think, here in Michigan, that it is important to have the ability for people to come and make their lives in this country, but they need to come in the right way. And they need, it needs to be responsible and there needs to be resources to support people when they do. The fact of the matter is this is a state people came to to flee persecution or famine or just looking for a good job that will get them in the middle class. That's why we are the state we are today. It is an important part of our economic future. But it is critical that the federal government has a responsible plan to make a path for people to come into this country.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you would like to see Congress get this done.

GOV. WHITMER: I think every one of us would.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Governor, thank you for being generous with your time and welcoming us here to Michigan.

GOV. WHITMER:  Thank you, come on back anytime.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Oh we will be back I'm sure, in 2024.

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