Trump’s War on Blue America

The president’s move to revoke California’s authority to set car-emission standards is part of a broader push to stymie the states that voted against him.

Cars and trucks drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a highway in Los Angeles.
Mike Blake / Reuters

Across a growing number of issues, from immigration to taxes to health care, President Donald Trump is harnessing federal power to constrain—and even punish—the blue states outside of his political coalition.

One recent move escalated that offensive: Yesterday, Trump tweeted that the Environmental Protection Agency will revoke a federal waiver that California received from former President Barack Obama to set its own standards for reducing vehicle emissions, a key contributor to climate change. No previous president has attempted to revoke a waiver granted to California since the state was granted the unique authority to set its own emissions rules under the Clean Air Act of 1970.

“This is the fight of a lifetime for us,” Mary Nichols, the longtime chair of the California Air Resources Board said at a press conference yesterday morning. “We have to win this, and I believe we will.”

Trump’s move to revoke the waiver stands at the intersection of three broad trends in his presidency. First is his clashes, on many fronts, with California, which has emerged as the symbol of blue-state resistance to his agenda. The second is his systematic effort to undo Obama’s initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. The third, and most sweeping, is the president’s growing attempt to shift resources from blue to red states, to hobble blue states’ ability to resist federal initiatives, and even to inhibit the ability of blue states to pursue liberal policies within their own borders.

“There is a strong and aggressive focus [in the Trump White House] on using these strategies to go after states that are not in the president’s corner in ways that have an enormous amount of technical sophistication to them,” says Don Kettl, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies state-federal relations. “They are doing it in ways that previous administrations haven’t tried. So this is a very big thing. It has the possibility of casting a very long shadow over not only the next few months, but also the possibility of a second term.”

While Democrats and Republicans both claim to revere the principle of states’ rights, each side, while occupying the White House, has at times leveraged federal authority to override state decisions. The general trajectory over the past quarter century has been toward steadily rising conflict between presidents of one party and states controlled by the opposing party.

During the relatively less polarized 1990s, former President Bill Clinton managed to build alliances with Republican governors, such as John Engler of Michigan and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, on issues such as welfare reform. But by the time Obama took office in 2009, coalitions of attorneys general from Republican states were routinely filing federal lawsuits challenging his policies. Those Republican lawsuits blocked several Obama initiatives, including his efforts to limit carbon emissions from electricity generation and to provide legal status to about 4 million undocumented immigrants. The Obama administration, in turn, launched lawsuits against some Republican states seeking to limit access to voting; Obama’s Justice Department also sued to block Arizona’s “Show your papers” law targeting undocumented immigrants.

Still, Trump and Republicans in Congress have escalated these skirmishes to a new level. “I can’t really recall a federal administration that has so aggressively and on so many fronts claimed federal powers to supersede state authority,” says Richard Frank, who studies environmental law at the University of California at Davis.

Through both legislation and executive action, Trump and congressional Republicans have pushed a series of policies that target blue states, starting with the tax bill passed in late 2017. That law sought to pressure blue states to cut their own taxes by capping what taxpayers could deduct in state and local taxes from their federal tax returns. (Almost all of the states in which the largest share of taxpayers claimed these deductions in 2016 voted for Hillary Clinton that year.)

Trump has also tried to pressure so-called sanctuary cities that don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration enforcement by withholding law-enforcement funds from them. And his Justice Department has sued California over its “sanctuary state” law.

The same trend is apparent on other issues. In August, the EPA proposed regulations that would limit states’ ability to contest the construction of energy pipelines through their borders. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has issued a policy blocking state regulators from scrutinizing the companies that collect federal student loans. When Republicans controlled the House in 2017, they passed legislation that would override state laws by allowing any gun owner with a concealed-carry permit in one state to bring that firearm to any other state. In recent weeks, Trump has hinted that he will seek to intervene to override policies on homelessness in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

And take health care: The president’s most recent federal budget endorsed legislation that would replace the Affordable Care Act with block grants to the states, massively shifting federal dollars from the mostly blue states that expanded eligibility for Medicaid under the ACA to the mostly red states that did not.

Democratic governors view these moves as a consistent effort to limit their authority. “The Trump administration continues to undermine important state programs and protections in order to push a dangerous, out-of-touch political agenda,” Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, who also chairs the Democratic Governors Association, said in an emailed statement.

Even within this well-established pattern, the effort announced yesterday to revoke California’s waiver to regulate vehicle emissions stands out because it runs so counter to the moves that presidents of both parties have made for nearly half a century.

California’s authority to set its own standards dates back decades, to when former President Richard Nixon, a Republican (and Californian), signed the Clean Air Act. Recognizing that California had started regulating auto emissions in 1966 in response to its struggles with air pollution and smog, the law gave California, alone among the states, the ability to receive waivers from the EPA to set stricter vehicle-emissions standards. In 1977, Congress allowed other states to adopt California’s standards, rather than the federal rules.

Since 1970, the EPA has granted California more than 100 of these waivers, paving the way to the country’s first limits on emissions of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, along with the development of the catalytic converter and the check-engine light.

The waiver Trump is trying to revoke traces back to a 2002 California state law that required automakers to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from their vehicles, which functionally mandated that they improve the fuel economy on the cars they sell. Former President George W. Bush’s EPA refused to grant California a waiver to implement that law, and the state went to court to obtain it—though the dispute became moot when Obama took office in 2009 and approved the waiver. Obama then incorporated the California rules into a national agreement with auto companies to improve fuel-efficiency standards through 2016. In 2012, when California approved new state standards through 2025, Obama granted it another waiver, and again essentially merged the state rules into new national rules.

Trump is seeking to undo those national regulations, which would require automakers to improve the average fuel economy of their vehicles to about 54 miles a gallon by 2025; Trump wants to freeze the requirement at 37 miles a gallon. His effort has become tangled in a regulatory thicket as the EPA tries to assemble a legal justification for the move. But even if Trump succeeds in undoing the federal rules, he could still be stymied by the existence of the tougher California state regulations.

Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia (all of which voted against Trump in 2016) have adopted the California rules as permitted under the Clean Air Act—and they account for one-third of the total auto market in the United States. Automakers have been unenthusiastic about operating under two sets of fuel-economy rules, and encouraged the Trump administration to reach a deal with California. When that failed this summer, four of the largest automakers enraged Trump by agreeing with California to meet a slightly loosened version of its requirements (51 miles a gallon by 2026).

The environmental stakes in the dispute between Trump and California are enormous. Luke Tonachel, the director of the clean-vehicles and fuels group at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me that the Trump administration’s own analysis found that freezing the fuel-economy standard would increase carbon emissions from the average new vehicle in 2025 by 37 percent. “The only ones that benefit from this rollback are the oil companies, because it will force drivers to pay more at the pump,” Tonachel said.

California Governor Gavin Newsom made a similar argument yesterday, noting that even the auto manufacturers are not asking the Trump administration to pursue this step. “It’s about the oil industry, full stop,” Newsom insisted.

The state is suing, but legal observers say it’s unclear exactly how the courts—especially the five Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court—will respond to Trump’s move. The president’s gambit opens new legal territory, because no president has ever tried to revoke a waiver to California granted by a previous administration. At yesterday’s press conference, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra insisted flatly that Trump “doesn’t have the executive authority to do this.”

However the courts resolve this fight, it’s clear that the latest confrontation between Trump and California is just one salvo in the widening conflict between Democratic states and the administration. As president, Trump has pursued a distinctive strategy toward deep-blue states: Rather than trying to convince them, he’s been more likely to flog them as a symbol of failed policies that he uses to mobilize his base. In many respects, he’s governed as a wartime president, with blue states, rather than any foreign nation, as the enemy. And what’s clear is that Trump’s administration is growing more skilled at finding new ways to launch offensives against the states that he views as his adversaries.

“Now they have figured out, in effect, the dials of the combination lock to try to do some of this in ways that are breathtaking and have enormous implications for the future,” says Kettl, the author of the forthcoming book The Divided States of America. “If you start looking at the implications of the Affordable Care Act regulations, Medicaid regulations—you have your hands on the jugular of state budgets. There are things about unemployment insurance and food stamps, there is much you can do with highway and bridges … There is an enormous universe of things that really, really matter to state and local governments in terms of their budgets.”

By sending out an early-morning tweet, Trump may have wanted to personally claim credit for confronting California over fuel economy. But more and more, the war between blue states and the administration may be fought far from the headlines, Kettl told me. Trump’s team, he said, has learned that by taking control of relatively obscure budgetary and regulatory decisions that don’t usually reach the front pages, “you can grab them by the throat and inflict real pain without it ever having to reach the level of a presidential tweet.”