The unanswered question about Whitmer, Nessel and Line 5

Some of the players in this town have been wondering about the working relationship between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel and whether that relationship has its ups and downs or is peachy keen.

They are clearly the two most powerful persons in town, which creates a natural curiosity in the media as to how the Democrats’ two assignments mesh, especially in the wake of a rocky relationship between former GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s team and former GOP attorney general Bill Schuette.

Mr. Schuette recently adroitly addressed the question by saying they were two different people. There was more to it than that, but that awaits another column at another time.

As for Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel, the issue of Enbridge Inc.’s Line 5 serves as one jumping-off point to test the interchange between the two.

Early last June, the governor entered into negotiations with Enbridge, with hopes of accelerating the timeline to build a tunnel to house the aging, 66-year-old duel line underneath the Straits of Mackinac. Ms. Whitmer expressed strong reservations about plummeting the issue into the courts, where it could languish for years while the pipeline remained pumping millions of gallons of product under the environmentally sensitive waters.

Then, the talks broke off. The governor claims the company walked out and “I learned from you guys (the media) that I was being sued” by the company.

It didn’t take long for the attorney general to act by hauling Enbridge into two courts. One, the Michigan Court of Claims, where she argued, with the governor’s blessing, a suit to block a Snyder administration-era authority charged with overseeing the tunnel construction.

“It’s unconstitutional,” the AG opined in her filing.

At the same time, on June 27, she went into Ingham County Circuit Court to shut down the pipeline “as soon as possible.” She defended that action based on the observation that the governor’s talks with Enbridge had failed.

“She tried her best,” Ms. Nessel reflected on the governor’s efforts, and “there was no need for more delays.”

So, did the governor sign off on that second legal foray?

A deep dive into the governor’s written statements to the press gave no direct response to that question and, when the guv’s media folks were asked if she had signed off, the answer from them did not clarify the issue, either. The governor did repeat her fears about a protracted fight.

On that same date, June 27, Ms. Nessel appeared on a six-minute video explaining her actions and even she took note of the possibility that somebody might wonder whether she and the governor were on the same page.

“Some of you might ask whether the governor and I agree on this issue,” to which she answered her own question: “I know she cares deeply about the Great Lakes … We have dual responsibilities and are operating on duel tracks.”

It was unclear what “issue” the AG was addressing, but the impression she tried to create, some say, was that the two were acting in concert on the pipeline.

But were they?

The governor was finally asked about all that the other day, with the following exchange. You decide whether the question was answered.

Question: Did you support Ms. Nessel’s move?

Governor: “The attorney general has her own independent authority.”

Question: Did she ask you if you wanted to sign off on that?

Governor: “We’ve had a lot of ongoing conversations.”

Question: So, did you support that move?

Governor: “I support Dana using every ounce of power she has to do what she thinks is the right thing.”

Hum.

The key phrase there is “what she thinks is the right thing.”

Does that mean the governor thinks it was the right thing to do?

There was no time to ask that question.

Maybe next time.