He wants Trump to know how unimpressed he is by the chief executive’s promiscuous smack talk. “I don’t put a lot of stock in what he says. I put stock in what he does,” Becerra told me. “And even what he does is not necessarily what’s staying in place, as we see with these executive orders.” (Indeed, as Becerra plowed through his mound of bacon, eggs, and pancakes, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was getting ready to put a bullet through Trump’s original travel ban.) “As for me, I work with what is operational. Not what is”—Becerra’s fingers spidered furiously beside his temple—“in his mind.”
A former member of Congress, Becerra brings to battle decades of Washington experience. He says this is likely part of why Governor Jerry Brown tapped him to replace the previous attorney general, Kamala Harris, who was in November elected California’s junior senator. “The governor knew that much of what would occupy the next attorney general’s time would be things coming from Washington.”
The job carries considerable risks: By definition, it puts Becerra in the crosshairs of the famously vindictive Trump. (When the pro-Trump trolls get fired up, Becerra’s Twitter feed can be a dark and scary place.) But the potential rewards are also considerable: If he succeeds in derailing at least some of the president’s policies, while making others politically costly, Becerra could find himself a Democratic hero.
With Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress, Democratic attorneys general across the country are stepping up—and joining forces with one another—to act as a legal barricade against Trump’s policies. Immediately upon being appointed, Becerra was welcomed to the fight by a number of his new colleagues, most notably New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is said to be picking apart Trump’s business dealings. An effort of this magnitude requires “teamwork,” Becerra says, with different states taking the lead on different issues.
He is particularly primed to challenge Trump’s assault on “sanctuary cities”—cities that limit cooperation between local police and immigration agents. In his first week on the job, he sat down with the state’s sheriffs and had a heart-to-heart on the topic. “Rather than wait for Trump to send something our way and then react to it, I wanted to make sure they understood how the new attorney general interpreted state and federal law,” he told me.
Two state laws in particular clash with Trump’s vision of mass deportations: the 2013 trust Act, which limits the detention of immigrants by local law enforcement, and the 2016 truth Act, which strengthens the rights of immigrants detained in jail. “I tried to make pretty clear to the sheriffs what I thought we could and could not do.”
When it comes to the so-called Trump resistance, Becerra sees California playing a special role by virtue of its size and “forward leaning” politics. “Sometimes it takes a generation, but we pull the country in certain directions.” The state has shifted leftward in the past two decades, particularly on race and immigration. Back in the 1990s, “we were where the country seems to be … on immigration. Look at Prop 187,” he said, invoking the anti-immigrant ballot initiative pushed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson in 1994. Recalling the “Yes on 187” campaign’s infamous ads (which showed migrants streaming over the Mexican border as a narrator darkly warned, “They keep coming”), Becerra observed, “That’s exactly what Donald Trump is saying: ‘We’ve got to do this ban because they’re coming!’ ” Although voters approved Prop 187, which promised to deny illegal immigrants access to government services, the measure was blocked by the courts and never enforced. It did have one lasting consequence, however: a political backlash that hobbled the state’s Republican Party for a quarter century and counting.