In the midst of a government shutdown, President Trump has threatened to cut off federal emergency aid to California for forest fires.
Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that “billions of dollars” are sent to California to help with its wildfire recovery efforts and claimed, without evidence, that the state would not need the funds if forests were properly managed.
“Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money,” Trump stated. “It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
It is unclear, based on the tweet’s wording, if Trump already directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to withhold funds or if he would be doing so. FEMA representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning. An email sent to them generated this automated reply: “Due to the federal funding hiatus, we are not able to respond to general press queries.”
The White House did not respond to a request for clarification on the intent of the president’s tweet.
Whether the president even has the authority to rescind FEMA funding that has already been approved remains unclear. Guidelines for the way federal dollars flow after the president declares a national disaster, like he did after devastating wildfires in California this year, are outlined in the Stafford Act, said Rafael Lemaitre, the former director of public affairs for FEMA under the Obama administration.
“I’m not aware of any mechanism where you can say, ‘I’m undeclaring a state of disaster,’ ” Lemaitre said.
After the Woolsey Fire in the south and the Camp Fire in the north this fall burned hundreds of thousands of acres of land, destroyed thousands of structures and killed 89 people, President Trump declared Ventura, Los Angeles and Butte counties disaster areas.
Since then, 6,646 individuals have applied for FEMA assistance to find temporary housing, and more than $48.7 million in federal aid has already been approved, according to a data tracker on the FEMA website. It’s unclear if these numbers have been updated during the government shutdown.
Individual assistance dollars help victims find temporary housing, pay for repairs to their homes or help them buy groceries, clothes or new furniture. The window to apply for this aid closes Jan. 31.
It is unknown if Trump’s threat to stop FEMA funding could threaten those still seeking undistributed money.
“FEMA individual assistance is a real lifeline for people in their greatest time of need,” Lemaitre said, “and to use the plight of survivors to push your political agenda is draconian.”
Individual assistance differs from public assistance, which is money designated by FEMA to states to help fund infrastructure repairs related to the relevant disaster. That money trickles at a slower rate, Lemaitre said.
It’s possible Trump could follow through on his threat by closing recovery centers in California or slowing the bureaucratic process by which public and individual assistance is transmitted to the state, Lemaitre said. Another possibility might be refusing funds for future phases of the recovery process that have not yet begun, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel with the Professional Services Council, a trade group that represents government contractors.
Chvotkin, too, said he doesn’t believe the Stafford Act explicitly grants the president the authority to halt or take back funds already designated for FEMA aid. The Stafford Act does allow the federal government to recover payments made to a state if there is evidence of civil or criminal fraud.
The act also gives the president authority to help fund the cost of disaster preparation and prevention through what’s called a hazard-mitigation grant. A president has the authority to withdraw approval for a hazard-mitigation grant if he determines the state has not implemented it in “a manner satisfactory to the president.”
“Think about the impact this has on the disaster survivors in California,” Lemaitre said. “These are survivors who right now, politics is the last thing on their mind. The last thing they need is more uncertainty in their lives as they try to survive.”
California’s Democratic lawmakers blasted Trump for his threat.
Newly sworn in Gov. Gavin Newsom told Trump they had “been put in office by the voters to get things done, not to play games with lives.”
“It’s absolutely shocking for President Trump to suggest he would deny disaster assistance to communities destroyed by wildfire,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “Attacking victims is yet another low for this president.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on Republicans to condemn Trump.
“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,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) tweeted.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a California Republican whose district includes Paradise, struck a more conciliatory tone, saying he agreed with Trump that there were onerous regulations in the state — but that they had nothing to do with FEMA aid for wildfire victims. The president’s tweet “came out of left field,” LaMalfa added.
“Cutting off money for FEMA isn’t the right approach, and it’s not helpful to have that discussion right now,” LaMalfa said Wednesday. “Let’s finish helping the victims and [then] have this royal battle on land management, and I’ll stand all day with him on that.”
Trump’s threat comes after a particularly devastating wildfire season in California — and is not the first time he has said he would withhold funds from the state. Last year, as deadly wildfires ravaged northern and southern California, Trump blasted state officials for their “gross mismanagement” of its forests, even though it is the federal government that manages many of California’s forests.
In November, the president visited Paradise, Calif., to see firsthand the destruction caused by the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. He toured the remains of the devastated, empty town — formerly population 27,000 — alongside then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and then-Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom (D), and appeared moved when talking about the lives lost. The Camp Fire death toll would later rise to 86 people.
(It was also on this visit Trump made the bizarre claim that the president of Finland told him they spent a lot of time raking their forests and thus prevented problems with wildfires. “You’ve got to take care of the floors. You know the floors of the forests, it’s very important,” Trump told reporters then. The Finnish president later said he had never spoken with Trump about raking.)
After his visit, Trump vowed to help those affected by the wildfires — “you’ve got the federal government,” he assured Californians — and Brown had largely praised the president for his efforts.
But Newsom, who was sworn into office this week, has wasted no time in criticizing Trump.
On his second day in office, Newsom introduced two wildfire-related executive orders. He also announced a partnership with the governors of Oregon and Washington, two other fire-prone states. The trio called on Trump to double federal funding to manage forestlands in their states — a demand that comes after two years of budget cuts under the current administration.
“It’s clear to me a lot more has to be done,” Newsom said Tuesday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “We are stepping up our game. I hear you, I get it. We need to do more. These last two years have been devastating.”
His executive orders focused on improving state-level initiatives to prevent and combat wildfires.
The first order gives state agencies permission to consult with private firms and academic institutions about employing the best, most sustainable technology to fight forest fires. It outlines a two-phased approach to studying and selecting contract partnerships with nongovernment agencies.
The second asks CAL FIRE, the state’s firefighting agency, to consult with other state departments and assemble a report within 45 days that offers “impactful administrative, regulatory and policy changes or waivers” that Newsom could initiate to mitigate fire risk.
Newsom asked for the report to target prevention measures that would benefit communities of lower socioeconomic status with fire education barriers, a factor that helped make the Camp wildfire in Paradise, Calif., especially devastating.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.