By Jeff Mason and Ben Klayman
YPSILANTI, Mich. (Reuters) - President Donald Trump traveled on Thursday to the crucial U.S. election battleground state of Michigan to visit a Ford Motor Co <F.N> plant amid tensions with its Democratic governor during the coronavirus pandemic, opting not to wear a protective face mask for the cameras.
Trump toured the Ford plant, which has been recast to produce ventilators and personal protective equipment, and held a roundtable discussion with African-American leaders concerning vulnerable populations hit by the virus.
Trump, who has said he is taking a drug not proven effective for the coronavirus after two White House staffers tested positive, did not wear a mask during any of his public events at the plant in the city of Ypsilanti even though Ford on Tuesday reiterated its policy that all visitors must wear them.
Trump has consistently disregarded guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging people to wear masks in close company to try to curb the spread of the virus.
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."
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.
In an interview https://cnn.it/2ZrT3Os with CNN, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said there would be a "very serious conversation" with Ford for permitting the President to violate state governor Gretchen Whitmer's executive order on masks.
The order specifies any person who is medically able must wear a mask in enclosed public spaces.
"They knew exactly what the order was and if they permitted anyone, even the President of the United States, to defy that order, I think it has serious health consequences potentially to their workers," Nessel, a Democrat, said.
Trump told Nessel on Twitter she shouldn't be taking her anger out on Ford.
"Not their fault, & I did put on a mask. No wonder many auto companies left Michigan, until I came along!"
Trump, seeking re-election on Nov. 3, has urged states to loosen coronavirus restrictions so the battered U.S. economy can recover, even as public health experts warn premature easing of restrictions could spark a second wave of infections.
Whitmer, seen as a potential vice presidential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is facing a backlash from critics in a state hit hard by the last recession. Trump has encouraged anti-lockdown protests against Whitmer in the state.
Whitmer, whose state has been hit by devastating floods, on Thursday moved to further reopen Michigan's economy through a series of executive orders.
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.
On Thursday he pledged federal support to help with the dam breaks.
Whitmer spoke with Trump on Wednesday.
"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," Whitmer told CBS News.
Whitmer added, "Threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary."
Trump won in Michigan in the 2016 election, the first Republican to do so since 1988.
(Additional reporting by David Shepardson, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu and Shubham Kalia; Writing Jeff Mason and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Editing by Will Dunham, Grant McCool & Shri Navaratnam)