SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — Less than 48 hours after he was sworn in as California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom found himself locking horns with President Donald Trump Wednesday over wildfire funding and the state’s forest management policies.
Trump once again suggested in a posting on Twitter that poor forest management is to blame for California’s deadly wildfires and said he’s ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stop giving the state money “unless they get their act together.”
Newsom fired back, telling Trump in a tweet — “We have been put in office by the voters to get things done, not to play games with lives.”
Trump’s tweet came a day after Newsom and Govs. Jay Inslee and Kate Brown of Washington and Oregon, respectively, sent a letter to the president asking him to double federal funding for forest management.
California’s Democratic U.S. senators also denounced Trump’s tweet Wednesday. In a statement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, “It’s absolutely shocking for President Trump to suggest he would deny disaster assistance to communities destroyed by wildfire. Attacking victims is yet another low for this president … If the president were serious about addressing wildfire, he would recommit the United States to reducing harmful emissions rather than attacking wildfire victims and referring to climate change as a hoax.”
Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted, “Californians endured the deadliest wildfire in our state’s history last year. We should work together to mitigate these fires by combating climate change, not play politics by threatening to withhold money from survivors of a deadly natural disaster.”
California Republican lawmakers were also critical of Trump’s threat. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, state Sen. Jim Nielsen and state Assemblyman Jim Gallagher all represent a Northern California community leveled by wildfire in November.
Nielsen and Gallagher said Trump’s threat to withhold money was “wholly unacceptable.” They added that a “Twitter war” between Trump and Newsom was “not helpful.”
LaMalfa said federal and state policies for fire management can be improved. But he said California’s wildfire victims are “American citizens who require our help.”
Newsom noted that California has pledged $1 billion over the next five years to ramp up its efforts, which include clearing dead trees that can serve as fuel.
More than half of California’s forests are managed by the federal government, and the letter noted the U.S. Forest Service’s budget has steadily decreased since 2016.
“Our significant state-level efforts will not be as effective without a similar commitment to increased wildland management by you, our federal partners,” the letter read.
In a Tuesday event on wildfire safety, Newsom had praised Trump for always providing California with necessary disaster relief funds.
In November, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century leveled the California town of Paradise, killing 86 people and destroying about 14,000 homes. Trump toured the fire devastation with Newsom just 53 days ago, promising help for those who had survived, but lost everything.
“So, the federal government is behind you,” Trump said at the time, standing over the remains of a scorched home. “We’re all behind each other, I think we can truly say.”
But can the President undo his disaster declaration?
In reality, there isn’t much the president can do retroactively. “Under the Stafford Act, when the president declares an disaster, FEMA can fund no less than 75 percent,” explained Craig Fugate, FEMA Administrator for six years under President Obama.
Fugate is now the Chief Disaster Management Officer for One Concern, a disaster preparation and response planning company. He says there is no real way for President Trump to claw back what has already been promised for California fire recovery.
“I don’t know how FEMA doesn’t provide the funding, once it’s has already been declared,” said Fugate. “I don’t know what the mechanism is to say we wouldn’t fund it.”
KPIX 5 tried asking FEMA what, exactly, the president “ordered” the agency to do, but the agency is not fielding media inquiries due to the ongoing government shutdown.
In practical terms, the president’s tweet is nothing much more than a tweet. It is not an actual government function, much less an executive order, and while it doesn’t really change anything for fire victims now, it presents a kind of horrifying possibility for the victims of California’s next fire disaster.
“The troublesome thing is,” says Fugate, “we’re potentially looking at disaster declarations as a tool to force policies. I’m not sure where we’re going there, but the president certainly can make the decision not to declare a disaster.”
Wilson Walker contributed to this report.
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