President Donald Trump has repeatedly used his bully pulpit to threaten California’s federal funding, but the government — and his own party in Congress — don’t seem to be listening.
After Trump’s latest threat over the weekend to withdraw funding, some feared the president may punish the Democratic-led state during one of its deadliest environmental disasters in modern history. But if recent history and the response from lawmakers are any guide, there is little reason to believe federal payments for disaster relief will be cut off.
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Trump himself in a late Monday tweet said that he had just approved “an expedited request for a Major Disaster Declaration” for California.
“Wanted to respond quickly in order to alleviate some of the incredible suffering going on,” he tweeted. “I am with you all the way. God Bless all of the victims and families affected.”
On the ground in California, officials say the conciliatory language in Monday night’s tweet is more in line with the administration’s swift and cooperative response in recent days as firefighters battle one the worst spates of fires in the state’s history.
“The Feds responded quickly to the initial request for federal aid last week,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, a few hours before Trump also approved the disaster declaration. Westrup said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working closely with the state’s top emergency officials.
In general, former FEMA administrators appointed by presidents of both parties said Trump’s personal responses to disasters appeared to have no bearing on the government’s on-the-ground response to them.
“You’ve got the rhetoric and what really happens,” said Craig Fugate, who led FEMA under President Barack Obama. “None of this on the surface to me seems like the rhetoric is interfering with the process.”
R. David Paulison, the FEMA administrator under President George W. Bush, said, “I’ve watched the responses as best as I can from afar and I have not seen anything to indicate the response has been partisan one way or another.”
To be sure, critics have accused Trump’s administration of responding more attentively to disasters in places that voted for him, like Texas and Florida, than in Puerto Rico, which holds no sway in Congress or the Electoral College — and where Trump is unpopular.
California leaders worried that such favoritism might be unfolding over the weekend when Trump in a tweet exhorted the state to fix its “gross mismanagement of the forests” or face “no more Fed payments!”
“Lives have been lost. Entire towns have been burned to the ground. Cars abandoned on the side of the road. People are being forced to flee their homes. This is not a time for partisanship,” Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, tweeted in response to Trump. “This is a time for coordinating relief and response and lifting those in need up.”
Privately, Democratic officials in the state are expressing concern that the president could still find ways to cut off funds without warning.
But even Trump’s allies in Congress were quick to dismiss his threat.
“California will receive the money they need,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a frequent Trump defender and golfing partner, when asked about it on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to threaten funding,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
By that point, the president had followed up with a more sympathetic Saturday evening tweet praising the first responders fighting the fire, and he tweeted a similar message of support again on Monday.
Still, it’s not the first time Trump has threatened California’s funding. In October, he complained about the federal money going to fighting wildfires in the state — where roughly 60 percent of forestland is managed by the federal government — and warned, “California ought to get their act together.”
But lawmakers in both parties have already come together twice to block Trump’s requested cuts to federal agencies that manage the country’s forests, and earlier this year Congress approved new funding streams for combating wildfires.
It’s not just money for firefighting that Trump has threatened to cut off, but federal funds for California in general. In a Fox News interview with Bill O’Reilly in February 2017, Trump said California was “out of control” because of efforts to enact a “sanctuary state” law that would have barred state and local law enforcement officials from cooperating with the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
“If we have to, we’ll defund,” Trump said. “We give tremendous amounts of money to California.”
But that threat was tested two months later, when Brown requested federal funds to repair damage from severe winter storms. Despite the talk of defunding, Trump granted half a billion dollars in disaster relief.
California went on to pass its sanctuary state law last October, and the Trump administration has unsuccessfully challenged it in court. There is no evidence Trump has been able to “defund” the state over the law.
“The Trump White House clearly is at odds with California,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who served as a speechwriter to former California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican. “But the last time I checked, it’s still a star on the flag.”
The next question about Trump’s response to the California fires is whether he’ll visit the state. George W. Bush visited in 2007 to tour damage from wildfires that killed 17 people. This fall’s fires have already claimed twice as many lives.
On Monday evening, the White House said no decision had been made about a possible Trump visit.
“The President continues to monitor this very dangerous situation and the ongoing rescue and relief efforts,” spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “As he said, the people of California affected by this horrific disaster are in our prayers.”
And while there are no current plans for the president to travel out west, Gidley said FEMA Administrator Brock Long will be in the state Tuesday “at the emergency operations center and visiting the impacted areas with local officials in the coming days.”