Days after Hurricane Florence rammed into the North Carolina coast, President Trump was on his way to comfort those who lost homes or loved ones. He met with the state’s Democratic governor; he sat for a briefing; he paused to ask residents in New Bern: “Hi, everybody, how’s your house?”
When Hurricane Harvey pummeled Texas last year, he traveled to Houston, and when Hurricane Michael hit Florida and Georgia last month, he and the first lady quickly went to the Gulf Coast.
But as California has been convulsed in tragedy — a mass shooting and an outbreak of wildfires that included the deadliest in the state’s history — the president has not only offered little comfort; he has also heaped on criticism. He’s blamed the forest fires on “gross mismanagement,” threatened to withhold federal payments and instructed officials there: “Get Smart!”
The disparity in the responses to red states and blue states is one that continues to exacerbate the nation’s partisan complexion, injected now even into natural disasters.
A president who prizes and craves loyalty more than any other attribute, Trump has divided states into ones that voted for him and the ones that didn’t, and found that last group wanting. In California, that has meant state officials are having to fight not only killer fires but also the combustible rhetoric coming from the Oval Office.
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump tweeted early Saturday, as fires consumed portions of the state in the north and the south. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
Not until 14 hours later did he express sympathy for the victims.
California officials responded by pointing out that the latest fires have not started in forests but in suburban areas, fueled by scrub grasses and chaparral dried by the state’s long-standing drought, and driven by blowtorch winds. Moreover, the vast majority of forest land in California is owned and controlled not by the state but by the federal government, under Trump’s control.
“Forestry management in this country is something we should debate; it’s something we should talk about,” said Michael Brown, who served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the George W. Bush administration. “But in the middle of the fire? That’s not the time to debate it; that’s not the time to make the point.
“It detracted from what firefighters and California and other governors — red states and blue states — are doing to help protect California.”
White House officials did not respond when asked why Trump often appears to be more publicly critical of Democratic areas that suffer natural disasters, compared with more conservative states.
On Monday night, Trump announced he had agreed to sign the major federal disaster declaration that California officials had requested 24 hours earlier.
“Wanted to respond quickly in order to alleviate some of the incredible suffering going on,” he tweeted. “I am with you all the way.”
Since he took office, Trump has made 111 trips to 26 states that he carried in 2016, while traveling 47 times to 10 states that he lost, according to figures compiled by Mark Knoller of CBS News.
Six of those visits have been to areas hit by natural disasters. In 2017, Trump traveled to Texas twice after Hurricane Harvey, and once each to Puerto Rico, severely damaged by Hurricane Maria, and Florida after Irma. This year, Trump has made two hurricane-related trips: to the Carolinas after Hurricane Florence, and to Florida and Georgia post-Hurricane Michael.
The current California wildfires are the third to have occurred without a presidential visit. Trump has been to the state once since taking office, to survey prototypes of the wall he wants to build along the southern border.
In addition to his visits, Trump’s remarks represent another way in which he has treated less-friendly areas differently than disaster zones more supportive of him.
Ahead of natural disasters, a review of his tweets indicate, he warns the public to evacuate and to listen to local officials (“I encourage everyone in the path of #HurricaneHarvey to heed the advice & orders of their local and state officials”). Afterward, he praises the cleanup work (“Right now, everybody is saying what a great job we are doing with Hurricane Florence — and they are 100% correct”). And later, he credits local Republican officials for advocating on behalf of their state (“Lake Okeechobee and all of the hurricane money were a passion for Rick Scott, who called endlessly on behalf of the People of Florida”).
His treatment of California and Puerto Rico stands out for its post-disaster negativity.
In Puerto Rico, he got into a tit-for-tat argument with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as recovery efforts were underway. Later, when he visited the U.S. territory, he was criticized for tossing paper towels into the crowd, as if making victims compete for the goods. He since has played down the number of deaths attributed to the hurricane and is working on plans to stop providing disaster relief funds for the island.
“The people of Puerto Rico are wonderful but the inept politicians are trying to use the massive and ridiculously high amounts of hurricane/disaster funding to pay off other obligations,” he wrote last month on Twitter, an accusation for which there is no proof.
When it comes to California, at which Trump leveled blame even before praising firefighters, the disasters are striking at the epicenter of the anti-Trump resistance movement. Attorney General Xavier Becerra has sued the Trump administration dozens of times, attempting to block efforts to penalize sanctuary cities or to roll back environmental protections, among other things. In the midterm elections, Democrats won back numerous seats from Republicans, including in the longtime conservative bastion of Orange County.
The president has repeatedly blamed the state — falsely — for allowing millions of fraudulent ballots in 2016, which he says led to his loss of the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s latest comments about fighting wildfires resurrect ones he made during fires in August and during comments in a Cabinet meeting last month.
“I say to the governor, or whoever is going to be the governor, of California: You better get your act together,” Trump said. “Because California, we’re just not going to continue to pay the kind of money that we’re paying because of fires that should never be to [that] extent.”
Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said during a Sunday news conference that Trump’s emphasis on forest mismanagement missed the larger cause of the devastation. Fire experts insist that the intensity of recent fires has been exacerbated by climate change, the existence of which Trump has denied.
“Managing all the forests everywhere we can does not stop climate change,” Brown said. “And those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we are now witnessing and will continue to witness in the coming years. The chickens are coming home to roost; this is real here.”
The upside for California, which perennially delivers more in tax receipts to the U.S. government than it receives in federal money, is that Trump’s treatment of it has yet to flow from word to action.
“Tweets are not outcomes,” said W. Craig Fugate, who was FEMA director during the Obama administration. “My observation is that FEMA has not been doing anything different in this administration than what we did in the Obama administration when it comes to presidential declarations.”
On Friday, within 24 hours of making the request, California secured federal assistance to support communities affected by the fires. Brown requested a presidential major disaster declaration on Sunday; Trump announced Monday night that he had approved it.
Congressional Democrats plan to demand $720 million for wildfire relief in California, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said Monday — adding that lawmakers will also have to appropriate more money for ongoing hurricane recovery in Texas, Florida and elsewhere, including Puerto Rico. Trump has signaled to lawmakers that he wants to stop sending disaster aid to Puerto Rico, a circumstance first reported by Axios and confirmed to The Washington Post by a person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose confidential deliberations.
“The threat to cut off federal funding while the fires are very much burning is unconscionable for the president of the United States to say,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.). “It’s adversarial at the very worst time. Every state in the nation and every territory of the United States should be able to count on a sympathetic president who is trying to do everything he or she can in times of natural disaster, and it should be true whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat, or the state is red or blue.”