In between his threats to keep the government shut for months or years if Congress refuses to fund his border wall, President Trump made time Wednesday morning to threaten to cut off disaster relief dollars to Californians whose homes were charred by wildfires last year. After complaining for the umpteenth time about the way the state manages its forests, Trump tweeted, “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money.”
The threat is probably no more serious than it was the last time Trump uttered it. He has frequently shaken his fist at California – over its immigration policies in particular – and has rarely followed through.
Still, Trump’s response to the fires, like his response to congressional Democrats’ refusal to waste billions of dollars on a bigger, longer border wall, reflects his disturbingly authoritarian view of the presidency. Stung by criticism from California’s Democratic leaders, Trump is proclaiming his intention to ignore the federal law governing disaster assistance and simply turn off the spigot of federal dollars. Frustrated that lawmakers won’t fund his pet project at the border, Trump threatens to declare a national emergency so he can ignore the will of Congress and spend the money anyway.
What’s especially galling about Wednesday’s sniping was Trump’s willful ignorance about the nature of California’s wildfire problem.
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California is, in fact, getting its “act together,” moving to spend $1 billion over five years to reduce fire risk and better prepare communities for the larger, more destructive fires driven, in part, by climate change. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday called for even more money – an additional $100 million this year – to help accelerate the thinning of dry, dense forests and brush.
Some 60 percent of California’s forests are on federal land, however, and as Newsom points out, the U.S. Forest Service budget has been cut by more than $2 billion since 2016. Instead of properly funding fire prevention on federal lands, where some of the most destructive fires in the state’s history have raged, Trump has repeatedly railed against the “gross mismanagement” of forests in California – whatever that’s supposed to mean. Trump is myopically focused on forests when some of California’s largest fires have been in the brush and grasslands.
But such details apparently mean nothing to Trump. California leaders have dared to question his decisions and challenge his demands, therefore – in the World According to Trump – they do not deserve his government’s support. Never mind that thousands of Californians have lost their homes and businesses and are relying on federal assistance to rebuild their lives. Even if he doesn’t carry out his threats, the fact that he would make them tells you a lot about the man who seeks to use the tremendous power of his office not to unite people, but to bully them into submission.