President Donald Trump came to Maine last Friday to visit Puritan Medical Products, the Guilford manufacturer producing swabs for COVID-19 tests. The century-old company has a right to be proud.
They took a traditional Maine resource—wood—and turned it into highly successful products that, like Maine itself, are more practical than glamorous. The humble toothpick, with a touch of mint flavoring added? Genius. And the tongue depressor, familiar to every child when it was time to say “aaah.”
Puritan added “tipped applicators” to their production line in 1978. They now make 65 different types of swabs, over 12 million per day. They are an accredited medical device manufacturer, perfectly positioned to respond to a critical need in a pandemic.
Presidential visits are planned in excruciating detail. This one was announced on the Monday prior and on Wednesday, just two days before it took place, the Guilford Town Manager said the town office had not been officially contacted about the visit. Nevertheless, it went off without a hitch.
If the visit to Puritan was a standard “grip and grin,” albeit without the gripping, the meeting preceding it was anything but. Air Force One landed at the Bangor airport where the president met with Maine fisheries representatives. Typically, the governor hosts a presidential entourage. This time it was the former governor, Paul LePage, who did the honors. Current Governor Janet Mills was not invited.
The assembled experts had decades, or centuries, of fishing experience. President Trump’s question to them was this: “Our conservation rules, are they overly tough, are they ridiculous? Are our rules fair and good, or are they not?”
Well. Those present were real fishermen, feet on the deck, hands on the wheel fishermen. With an opening question like that, the president could have just sat back and let ‘er rip, but he went well beyond. If the fishermen were looking for action, it is action they got.
He put Paul LePage in charge of a task force to “figure it out.” He promised a tariff on imported cars that will be “equivalent plus” until tariffs on lobster are dropped. LePage said lobster sales to China “went from 600,000 pounds to less than 100,000 pounds.” Not quite. They went from 12 million pounds to 2.2 million over a 6-month period in 2019 compared to 2018.
The president delegated Peter Navarro, director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, to do almost everything else. “Peter will do that.” “He’ll take care of that.” “You can do that Peter, right?” “Peter Navarro is going to be the lobster king!” Navarro confirmed that the president’s Executive Order will “ensure that the commercial fishermen of this state will be able to fish the waters of this state without undue regulations.” The president was a bit more cautious. “We want conservation, we want good environmental practices, it’s very important…”
He signed on the spot a proclamation reopening the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of Massachusetts to commercial fishing. The gathering approved the action despite the fact that no Maine boats fish that particular area.
Fishermen can muster arguments about fishing regulations in their sleep, and they were clearly well prepared. Their biggest challenge was fielding presidential interruptions with questions that revealed, let us say, an imperfect understanding of the industry.
Kristan Porter, a fisherman from Washington County and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, had a rare opportunity and seized it. “I’d be run out of town if I didn’t bring this up to you,” he said, raising the issue on every lobsterman’s mind: whale rules. He got past the president’s query: “The endangered white whale?” with quiet emphasis the next time he said “right whale.” He wisely remained silent when asked: “You love doing that. You wouldn’t switch to be president, right?”
It was Paul LePage who had the solution. “We solve this problem by going to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and telling them to get reasonable about their regulations.” “Going to where?” asked the president. “NOAA,” responded LePage. “They are the problem.” “OK,” said the president, “work on it. As long as we can protect the whale, I’m gonna do it.”
Governor LePage solved the coronavirus problem for Maine, too. “What I advised her (Governor Mills) to do,” he said, was “put somebody on Route 2 and everybody with a foreign plate, an out–of-state plate, get their name, telephone number, where they’re gonna be, problem solved.”
Lobster king Navarro closed his comments with this: “This first [Executive] order will clear off the decks of undue regulations.” The second will “set free the fishermen of this state.” The fishermen? They welcome relief from burdensome regulations, but they also spoke in favor of “public process,” a process the president seems poised to bypass through regulation by Executive Order.