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Wildfires: The latest chapter of Trump vs. California

Smoke from the Camp Fire, as seen on Nov. 8 from Black Butte Lake. (Photo: Caminor, via Shutterstock)

Sunrise, Nov. 8: Firefighters were dispatched to a small brush fire near Camp Creek Road in Butte County. Within 10 minutes, whipped by high winds, dry conditions and much fuel, the brush fire had exploded. By the end of the day, the fire had a name, the Camp Fire, and the town of Paradise was under an evacuation order.

A day later, the Paradise had burned to the ground, and the fire had spread to cover 100,000 acres. Buildings were falling and people were dying. The Camp Fire, only 20 percent contained at the time, was now the most destructive wildfire in California’s history.

As of Dec. 6, 85 people had been confirmed dead, and 11 remained unaccounted for, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Department.

On Nov. 10, after Paradise was lost, President Donald Trump issued his first statement on the fire. But it was not a message of comfort for the victims of the fire with “thoughts and prayers” or assurances that the federal government would be there for Butte County.

Rather, Trump issued a threat on Twitter: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Some on social media erupted in fury and fact-checking, angry that the president did not react with empathy to the tragedy. As of Dec. 6, 85 people had been confirmed dead, and 11 remained unaccounted for, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Department.

Gov. Jerry Brown, responding to Trump, called California’s recent battles with massive wildfires “the new abnormal,” fueled in part by climate change.

“I really appreciate the president himself being here and putting focus and a spotlight on probably one of the worst tragedies that California has ever faced.” — Jerry Brown

Brown said, “Scientists and the engineers and the firefighters all tell us forest management is one element’’ in controlling fires, but governments have “a whole range of actions” that they need to address in tackling this problem, which will likely cost “billions” of dollars to solve. He also noted that most of California’s forests are under federal, not state, control.

With a backdrop of thick smoke from the fires, Air Force One touched down on Nov. 17 in Northern California so Trump could tour the devastation in Paradise. After descending from the plane in a camouflage “USA” ball cap, he waved to military personnel and reporters and was met by Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom before traveling to Butte County by helicopter.

“I think we are all in the same path, we do have to do management, maintenance … we will be working also with environmental groups,” Trump told reporters in Paradise. “I think everybody has seen the light. I don’t think we will have this again to this extent. The federal government is all behind you, we are all behind you,” he said.

“I really appreciate the president himself being here and putting focus and a spotlight on probably one of the worst tragedies that California has ever faced,” Brown told an AP reporter in Chico.

But Trump’s threat to cut the flow of federal money to California wasn’t his first.

Trump threatened to pull funding for the California National Guard because Brown refused to allow the president to use the Guard for immigration enforcement.

He has threatened to cut funding and personnel to the state numerous times, mostly over immigration and environmental issues. California has challenged the Trump administration in numerous lawsuits—more than three dozen separate actions, including suits in which the state has joined other states.

In October, Trump slammed California for its forest management and water policies, and threatened to yank federal funds if the state didn’t get its “act together.”

In April, he threatened to pull funding for the California National Guard because Brown refused to allow the president to use the Guard for immigration enforcement.

In February, Trump threatened California again. This time he told the state that if California’s congressional delegation didn’t give him money for a border wall, then there would be no border wall for California. February also saw Trump threatening to pull Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of California.

When California is hit with a disaster such as the Camp Fire, there is much that Trump can do to choke down disaster aid

He said, “We’re getting no help from the state of California. Frankly, if I pulled our people from California, you would have a crime nest like you’ve never seen in California. All I’d have to do is say ‘ICE and border patrol, let California learn.’”

But his initial Twitter comment as the Camp Fire still raged—10 days later, it was still only half contained—was especially disturbing in California, where it was viewed as a political shot amid a horrific loss of life.

But his threats are not idle ones: When California is hit with a disaster such as the Camp Fire, there is much that Trump can do to choke down disaster aid. Trump’s response to the 2017 wildfires that consumed Napa, Sonoma and other counties provides a recent example.

In October 2017, Northern California was hit with a series of wildfires, resulting in 44 dead and $14.5 billion in damages. There were also fires in Southern California.

In November 2017, the White House sent a $44 billion disaster aid request to Congress with no money earmarked for California.

On Oct. 9 of that year, Brown declared states of emergency in Napa, Sonoma, Yuba, Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada and Orange counties. A day later, Brown added Solano County to the list and appealed to Trump for help. At this moment, Trump had a choice to classify California’s wildfires a disaster (with full funding), an emergency (with limited funding) or deny California’s request. Trump declared the wildfires a disaster.

Once the president issues his declaration, it is up to him to request funding. With the 2017 California wildfires, however, Trump refused to do so. But the House passed a $36.5 billion disaster aid package which covered three hurricanes and the wildfires.

In November 2017, the White House sent a $44 billion disaster aid request to Congress with no money earmarked for California. California’s congressional delegation sent Trump letter requesting $7.4 billion. While all of California’s 39 House Democratic House members signed on, only one Republican did—Orange County’s Ed Royce, who was poised to retire from his seat 39th District seat.

Trump ignored the request.

Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget & Policy Center, says the president can punish a state by creating or altering rules for federal programs and services.

In December, the House approved $81 billion in disaster aid for Gulf hurricanes and California’s fires, in legislation that was attached to a spending bill to thwart a veto. In February 2018, the Senate passed the disaster aid.

Under previous administrations, the state’s request to a president for a disaster declaration typically would have been granted speedily. The executive would have immediately requested the money from Congress and an aid package would be passed quickly. Under Trump, what should have been a simple exercise in governance turned into a four-month power play. Fortunately, California is a wealthy state with plenty of money in its general fund, so the delay had a minimal effect.

There are two additional ways that the president can monkey with federal funding to California.

Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget & Policy Center, says the president can punish a state by creating or altering rules for federal programs and services.

For example, Hoene said, “In recent budget proposals, the administration has sought to increase work requirements for entitlement programs, which reduces the eligibility for more low-income recipients (and California has more of those folks, so it hits our state harder).”

Hoene also said the president can use leverage over funding to try and force the state to enact “new policies [with] rules that are more harmful/restrictive to some states than others.”

There is nothing Trump can do to halt federal entitlement payments. The Constitution states that Congress controls the nation’s money.

In Trump’s tax-cut bill, for example, the legislation capped the state and local deduction, “which is based on the amount of state and local taxes paid. … (So) blue states with higher tax rates, like California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, etc., [sic] have more taxpayers who will pay higher taxes,” Hoene said, adding that the “revenues generated will also disproportionately go to red states by virtue of how the tax credits and deductions were designed.” He said that this “was done purposefully to penalize Californians.”

There is nothing Trump can do to halt federal entitlement payments. The Constitution states that Congress controls the nation’s money. The Supreme Court has placed strong limits on how the federal government can use funding to influence state policy.

Although Trump can throw roadblocks in the way of disaster aid, ultimately, Congress is the branch doling out the money. The result of these Constitutional protections is that Trump has been neutered.

“Twitter fodder is less about reality than it is about creating tension. There are more rules in place than 280 characters can do justice,” Hoene said.


  • Unofelice

    Paradise is not only surrounded by brush. The higher elevation residential areas are surrounded by forests. But those are not federal forests; rather they are owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s largest landowner. Those lands are a sea of clearcuts and young conifer plantations. Research and firefighter experience find that clearcuts and plantations typically burn fast and hot; they represent a much greater fire risk as compared to forests on public lands. In the Redding Fire 1900 acres of SPI plantations burned catastrophically. Private industrial forests are closer in most cases to where people live. And they are regulated by the State, not the feds! So what is Governor Newsom going to do to reduce forest fire risk where it is greatest: on timber industry controlled land?

  • Unofelice

    And what is the legislature going to do? So far they’ve made it easier for private interests to log big trees. That will increase, not decrease fire risk. The politicians are not going to make the timber industry address the fire risks it creates because they are all taking money from the timber corporations. We have the best government money can buy. Turns out the best money can buy is rotten to the core.

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