Trump’s Bizarre California Fire Threat Is Serious

Amid a political dispute with California politicians, the president threatened to cut off emergency relief to the state.

President Donald Trump visits the charred wreckage of Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park in Paradise, California, on November 17, 2018.
President Donald Trump visits the charred wreckage of Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park in Paradise, California, on November 17, 2018. (Leah Millis / Reuters)

Eighty-six Americans lost their lives last year in the Camp Fire, the largest and deadliest wildfire in California’s modern history. More than 11,000 people lived through the blaze but saw their homes destroyed. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump threatened to cut off relief for survivors and communities affected by that blaze, amid an ongoing political standoff with high-ranking California politicians.

“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money,” he said on Twitter. “It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”

It was not immediately clear whether Trump had actually stopped the funds from flowing. Neither the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to repeated press calls on Wednesday. “Due to the federal funding hiatus, we are not able to respond to general press queries,” said an automated email reply from FEMA staff.

But if Trump does tamper with emergency relief, there is little doubt that Californians will feel the bite. FEMA has already approved almost $49 million in assistance for more than 6,600 individual projects across the state. And until Trump sent his tweet, that number seemed certain to grow. Many residents have yet to apply for aid, since FEMA’s deadline for new grant requests is January 31.

Ernest Abbott, an attorney at Baker Donelson and FEMA’s general counsel from 1997 to 2001, told me that the White House could decline to authorize new funds for California without running into major legal obstacles. But it would struggle to withhold the $49 million that FEMA had already approved, he said.

“Under the Stafford Act, the president and FEMA have the discretionary authority to provide assistance to state and local governments,” he told me. The key word there is discretionary, meaning that when a disaster strikes, the president is not legally required to spend any money under the law.

That initial decision, to grant funds or not, cannot be challenged in court except on constitutional grounds (such as accusations of racial bias), Abbott said. But once FEMA has approved funds, courts can oversee any decision to withdraw them.

But Abbott admitted that it was difficult to know what, if any, legal action the president actually intended in his tweet. “I really don’t know how this one-sentence directive will be implemented,” he said.

In that way, Trump’s threat—or is it an order?—captures his presidency in microcosm. If Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce,” then Trump offers the experience of watching farce and tragedy happen simultaneously.

Farce: The president’s tweet isn’t just factually wrong. It points to an understanding of California’s fire problem that conflicts directly with what experts and firefighters describe. It is not clear that better forest management—especially raking and clearing, the techniques that Trump favors—would entirely prevent California’s ravenous wildfires. In any case, the U.S. Forest Service has currently stopped all forest-management work due to the government shutdown.

There are policies that could improve California’s resilience to wildfires. PG&E, the local electric utility, could update its infrastructure, reducing the chance of a power line sparking an errant blaze. For the past century, fire departments have fought virtually every forest fire; western forests are now packed with brush, debris, and dense stands of trees. The state or federal government could try to clear that fuel by attempting controlled burns—although experts say those burns would have to be of a much larger scale than virtually any equivalent burn now attempted in the United States.

The United States could also try to slow climate change, which has turned hot days into heat waves and verdant forests into dry tinderboxes. Between 1984 and 2015, the effects of climate change may have doubled the acreage burned by western wildfires, according to a recent study cited in the National Climate Assessment. But Trump, of course, has rejected both that assessment and most of the conclusions of climate science. He has fixated instead on raking forest floors.

Which brings us to tragedy: Not only is the president wrong, but he may have also turned an ordinary duty of the federal government—providing disaster relief to its citizens, swiftly and fairly—into a cudgel of partisan politics.

Trump makes no secret of his special ire for the Golden State, dubbing it “High Tax, High Crime California.” He has undermined its environmental laws and attacked its protections for unauthorized immigrants. Now, after reneging on a deal to fund the federal government last month, Trump finds himself battling Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House and a Democrat from San Francisco, over $5 billion in funding for a border wall with Mexico.

Trump has always elided Pelosi and her home state together—he once labeled her “High Tax, High Crime Nancy Pelosi.” It’s hard not to read his sudden, surprising threat to cut off California’s FEMA funding in the context of his siege on Pelosi. Never mind that Paradise, California, the city destroyed by the Camp Fire, voted for Trump in the 2016 election and is represented by a Republican in Congress.

On Wednesday, that Republican, Representative Doug LaMalfa, said that Trump’s threat “is going to get a lot of people upset and concerned.”

“That tweet came out of left field. It didn’t really help in that situation,” he told reporters near the House floor. “Now we’re working to make sure our constituents know—and I will be [reminding] them—that he made the promise [to them] when he came to visit Paradise, which is greatly appreciated, and that FEMA has been great so far in helping.”

Vann Newkirk contributed reporting to this article.