Trump’s War on California

The Golden State has thrived in defiance of the president. But now it’s on fire.

Donald Trump and the California state flag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images and filipefrazao/iStock.

California is burning. More than 15,000 firefighters have been fighting wildfires across the state. As of Monday, the Mendocino Complex fire became the largest in California history. Donald Trump recognized the tragedy by … inaccurately condemning the state’s water policies. This should give us pause, not because of what the president says, but because of the point this marks in Trump’s long, ongoing war with California.

Here’s what he said on Monday: “Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Can be used for fires, farming and everything else. Think of California with plenty of Water - Nice! Fast Federal govt. approvals.”

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled by journalists and experts responsibly trying to parse the president’s bizarre declaration. His claims have no scientific basis and have little to do with the tragedy going on right now. You might notice a few strange things about that tweet, aside from his neglecting to express any sympathy for the Californians who have lost their homes, and some their lives. One odd note is the appearance of “farming” in a tweet that’s ostensibly about wildfires. Another is “Fast Federal govt. approvals.” What does federal government approval have to do with the fires? Approvals of what?

The most obvious answer—though not the only one, as I’ll argue shortly—is disaster relief. The Trump administration’s aid to California has been stingy. Consider the president’s response to the 2017 wildfires. While some hurricane relief funding (including funds to rebuild) was supplied to Southern states in the White House’s November 2017 disaster aid request to Congress, not a cent was initially designated for victims of the California wildfires to rebuild. (Even Republican Sen. John Cornyn called the White House’s disaster relief budget “wholly inadequate.”) Trump’s long-standing hostility to California is no secret: In February 2017, he told Bill O’Reilly that California was “out of control” and said withholding federal funds “would be a weapon” he’d use to punish the state for opposing him. Given this admission, lawmakers nervous about a Trump vendetta have taken peculiar steps: 13 of 14 California Republicans refused to sign their own state’s request for federal aid following the 2017 floods and wildfires—the Republicans signed a separate letter, one uncontaminated by Democrats.

These are the sorts of real effects a petty, vindictive president achieves. Nor is there much reason to believe things have changed since last year. While Trump approved a disaster declaration this past Sunday that would make some federal aid available to Shasta County (where the Carr fire has raged since late July), he had to tweet something nasty about California’s governor. (It’s also not unreasonable to note that the county went for Trump in the 2016 election.) More funds have been requested by lawmakers to provide relief for other affected California counties—Lake, Mendocino, and Napa counties now have huge blazes of their own with which to contend. Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has added his voice to the bipartisan request for additional aid. But will Trump help? The earliest an answer would come is the end of this week after a damage assessment is completed, but the mere fact that there’s a question about this is symptomatic of the government-by-suspense he inflicts on the country—and on California in particular.

Trump’s ill will toward a state that won’t bend to him (it has in fact filed 29 suits against his administration) has a long and bitter history. He certainly couldn’t be happy about the vandalism of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which he bought in 2007—perhaps, some speculated, to distract from a feud with Rosie O’Donnell. But now the star has been vandalized so often that West Hollywood’s City Council has approved a symbolic resolution to remove it. Hollywood’s repulsion of the man has been near universal (as any awards show will attest), and Trump’s other efforts to make his mark on the state have been similarly disappointing. During the campaign he liked to say he’d be the first Republican to win the state in decades, but he lost to Hillary Clinton by an incredible 4.3 million votes. That figure became the basis for Trump’s false claim that there was rampant voter fraud. He couldn’t have lost the state by that much; it must have been the illegal immigrants! His plan in the 1980s to build a structure on Wilshire Boulevard that would be the tallest building in L.A. fizzled. When he visited Los Angeles for a mere 22 hours in 2018, as president, he made a point of spending the night in the building currently bearing that “tallest tower” designation—the Wilshire Grand.

But it’s as a political project that California has been a fly in Trump’s ointment. The world’s fifth-largest economy is succeeding wildly in defiance of Trump’s every prescription. As Bloomberg’s Matthew Winkler argues, the state disproves Trump’s policies at every turn. Trump credits environmental deregulation and cutting taxes for the rich for the humming American economy, and yet Jerry Brown’s agenda, which almost perfectly opposes Trump’s, has accompanied even better growth: “California’s 4.9 percent increase in GDP last year was more than twice the gain for the U.S. and enabled the state’s jobless rate to slide to 4.2 percent, the lowest on record since such data was compiled in 1976.” And the state has done it while leading on policies meant to combat climate change.

So far, Trump has not been able to bring this “out of control,” pro-immigrant state to heel. His attempt to punish California for sanctuary cities by weaponizing federal funds backfired: the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the president had exceeded his authority since “only Congress can put conditions on federal funds.” The same man who in 1988 was hyping the dangers of California earthquakes has slashed the earthquake budget. He’s currently attacking California’s ability to regulate its own fuel emissions; his administration is now in the business of arguing that looser gas-mileage requirements would actually be better for the environment. He made a point of looking at “wall” prototypes while in California, knowing that the majority of residents here abhor the idea. This is a man furious with a state that seems invulnerable to him.

That brings us back to the fires. Here, as ever with Trump, the urgent underlying question is not the issue itself—the man clearly considers the fires beside the point—but what grievance or financial opportunity is currently driving the president’s decision-making. And the tweeted statement was not about fire. It was about water. As I read it, specifically, it was about his administration’s efforts to increase the height of the Shasta Dam, which stands in the one county that has so far received federal aid.

The dam is an odd little episode in the larger story of California’s water wars, but it may yet turn out to be one of the weirder chapters in the tale of the Trump administration’s corruption. In brief: The Trump administration wants to fund a $1.3 billion project to increase the dam’s height by two stories, ostensibly for “water storage” and (you guessed it) farming.

This proposal would violate California state law (including one requiring that the natural flow of rivers be maintained), so who does a bigger dam benefit? Central Valley farms, for one, especially those that grow water-intensive crops like almonds. The project would also massively benefit Westlands Water District, the biggest irrigation district in the state, whose interests were until quite recently represented by a lobbyist named David Bernhardt. David Bernhardt is now the No. 2 at Trump’s Interior Department, an agency his previous firm sued four times while collecting more than $1 million from Westlands for promoting its water interests and challenging endangered species protections for fish like the California salmon.

Despite assurances at a Senate committee hearing, Bernhardt has not recused himself when it comes to the Shasta Dam. He has also been found to have continued doing work for Westlands Water long after he said he’d quit.

If the dam project goes through, it would flood miles of the McCloud River, in violation of state law. The Winnemem Wintu Tribe, which has already lost much of its land in the initial construction of the dam, would see much of its remaining sacred ground flooded. The project would hurt salmon. But those are likely minor side stories in the larger offensive the federal government seems to be launching against California’s own laws. As Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman put it, “The Trump administration would have to abrogate a century of federal deference to state laws on California water to go ahead with this.” Congress, undeterred, has approved $20 million for “pre-construction planning.”

While this sounds like a bingo card of things Trump loves—eliminating environmental protections, disenfranchising Native Americans, sacrificing public lands to private interests, and richly rewarding specifically the Californians who voted for him, all while flouting the laws of a state whose disobedience he resents—there is no proof Trump has all this in mind while the wildfire-ravaged state requests his help. But consider this: California’s main objection to the dam expansion pertains to protecting the McCloud under the state’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed in 1968 to preserve a river’s “free-flowing condition.” The strangest part of Trump’s tweet about the fires is the capitalization of “Free Flow.” Trump likes using capitalization on Twitter the way others use hashtags—he highlights the phrases that matter to him. We know, too, that he likes repurposing phrases (“fake news”) for his own needs. That the words he capitalized echo the precise legal reasoning against the dam might, of course, be a simple coincidence. But his key phrases usually come from somewhere. Whatever his intent may be in falsely asserting that the state is sending away extra water, or in pairing “Free Flow” and “Fast Federal govt. approvals,” or in telling Jerry Brown what he should do, Trump can’t help but tell us what he is thinking about. And it’s not Americans in need of help.