Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer defended the strictness of her state's coronavirus lockdown in an interview with "Axios on HBO," saying it was necessary — despite the protests that have drawn national attention — because of how quickly the state's cases were rising.

The big picture: Whitmer, who has been a frequent target of President Trump, insisted that she had to act in the face of a lack of federal leadership — and that thousands more people in her state would have died without the lockdown.

  • "I'm never going to apologize for the fact that because there was a vacuum of leadership at the federal level, we had to take action to save people here in Michigan," she told Axios' Alexi McCammond.
  • "It has not come without a cost. I recognize that. I know a lot of people are stressed about the job they lost or the business that might not open. But there's also over 5,000 families that are mourning the loss of a loved one. And I'm grateful that it's not 8,000 or more. "

The intrigue: Whitmer, who has been mentioned as a potential running mate for Joe Biden, didn't exactly slam the door on the prospect — saying only, "I'm not looking to leave Michigan" and that "there's a lot of work that needs to be done" in responding to the pandemic.

The backstory: Whitmer recently extended the state's stay-at-home order in the face of criticism from state officials and protesters, saying at the time that the extension was needed to "reduce the risk of a second wave."

In the interview, Whitmer acknowledged that not all parts of the state have experienced the virus, so they may not see the danger — but she insisted the lockdown was needed throughout the state to keep the virus from spreading out of control.

  • "We had to act swiftly because of how steep our curve was. But it worked. And now we can really start to responsibly reengage," Whitmer said.
  • If the virus did spread into rural areas, she said, "it could be even more dangerous than in a big city" because the hospitals might not be equipped to handle it.

Whitmer mostly brushed off Trump's attacks on her and Michigan, saying she didn't believe he could actually carry out his Twitter threat to "hold up" federal funding to Michigan and Nevada because of their plans to expand voting by mail.

  • But she said she does think carefully about her responses to him so they don't jeopardize aid to Michigan — and she said that "the worst night's sleep that I've got in the last 10 weeks is when he has attacked me on Twitter."
  • "I don't really care that it's an attack on me, but I'm worried that it would, you know, feed into a decision not to help Michigan. And that's all I'm asking for."

Of the armed Michigan protesters who have demonstrated against the lockdown, she said, "there's a slim part of the population that is showing up at the capital with their assault rifles and their Confederate flags and Nazi symbolism. But you know what? That's not what you see as you get across Michigan."

  • "The vast majority of people in the state are doing the right thing. They take this seriously."

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