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‘This visit is a political stunt:’ Trump’s California trip draws criticism from state leaders

U.S. Customs and Border Protection released aerial footage shot on Oct. 17 of the eight prototype border walls near the U.S.-Mexico border. (Video: US Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs)
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SAN DIEGO — When President Trump touches down here Tuesday, he will be landing in the cradle of the resistance to his presidency — and then thumbing his nose at those who oppose him.

On his first trip to California since taking office, Trump is scheduled to head down to the U.S.-Mexico border to inspect eight prototypes for his long-promised wall.

While the move is being enthusiastically welcomed by Trump’s supporters, it is expected to draw protests on both sides of the border. And it invited scorn Monday from leading Democrats here who have sought through legislation and lawsuits to fight an array of Trump policies, ranging from immigration to offshore drilling to health-care access.

“This visit is a political stunt to rally his base around a stupid boondoggle,” said California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who also accused Trump of “misogyny and bigotry” and suggested his visit to the border is an attempt to distract voters from the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

While in the Golden State, Trump will also address military personnel at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar here and attend a posh Republican National Committee fundraiser in Beverly Hills. There are no plans to meet with Gov. Jerry Brown or other leading Democrats in a state that Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by more than 4 million votes.

Despite his more than year-long absence, Trump is no stranger to California, and it bears markings of his success. Trump owns a home in Beverly Hills and a golf club in Rancho Palos Verdes, and he moved the staging of his reality show, “The Apprentice,” to the state after ratings started to slump in New York.

Still — as Tuesday’s visit will likely bear out — Trump’s relationships with state leaders have been openly hostile and continue to deteriorate.

A look at Trump’s border wall prototypes

“I don’t think he would be going there if the border wall prototypes were in Texas,” said Barry Bennett, a Republican consultant who advised Trump during the 2016 election. “It’s incredibly out of touch with the rest of the country. Politically, it’s not a place to waste too many seconds.”

The last time Trump was in San Diego, for a May 2016 campaign rally downtown, police in riot gear dispersed large crowds of protesters who clashed with Trump supporters. Thirty-five people were arrested.

In anticipation of what could be another unruly scene, police last week announced a “temporary restriction area” around the site of the border wall prototypes and pledged to prosecute anyone who brings in knives, bricks, baseball bats, firearms or other “implements of riot.”

Trump’s visit comes on the heels of a trip last week by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to announce the Trump administration is suing California in an attempt to block its “sanctuary” laws. Among other things, the administration is targeting a provision that bars local authorities from asking about the immigration status of people during routine interactions.

At a news conference in response, Brown said it was unprecedented for an attorney general to “act more like Fox News than a law enforcement officer” and angrily accused the administration of “basically going to war against the state of California, the engine of the American economy.”

Trump ramped up the rhetoric further during his weekly address on Saturday, accusing California leaders of acting “in open defiance of federal law.”

“They don’t care about crime,” Trump said. “They don’t care about death and killings. They don’t care about robberies. They don’t care about the kind of things that you and I care about.”

On the eve of Tuesday’s visit, Brown and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra — who has sued the Trump administration 28 times — suggested additions to Trump’s itinerary, knowing full well he wasn’t likely to listen.

No president since Franklin Roosevelt has waited so long since his inauguration to visit California — and he traveled by train.

“I’m not sure why it took him so long given California leads the nation in so many ways,” Becerra told reporters during a conference call, suggesting that Trump take time to learn about some of the state’s policy successes, including what he called nation-leading gun-control measures.

That was a not-so-subtle dig at the White House, which on Sunday unveiled initiatives in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that many gun-control advocates criticized as too feeble.

In a letter to Trump that Brown’s office made public Monday morning, the governor encouraged the president to visit the state’s Central Valley, where preparations are underway for a bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles — including the construction of bridges to accommodate the high-speed line.

“You see, in California we are focusing on bridges, not walls,” Brown said in the letter, in which he also recounted visits by other presidents who celebrated the state’s diversity and recognized its role in the U.S. economy.

Brown and other officials are quick to note that California on its own represents the sixth largest economy in the world.

“California’s economy is larger than Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” as de León put it.

The border wall prototypes Trump plans to visit are on display in a dusty lot near the border east of here. The 30-foot-tall barriers use varying configurations of steel, concrete — even spikes — to create ramparts far more formidable than almost anything in place along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. 

The Trump administration is seeking $18 billion for wall construction over the next 10 years, an amount that would pay for roughly 300 miles of new barriers where none exist and allow the government to replace 400 miles of “legacy” fencing.

While protests of Trump’s survey of the prototypes are being planned, at least one group is pledging a rally in support of the president’s vision.

Jeff Schwilk, founder of San Diegans for Secure Borders, said his group held a similar rally in December that drew about 150 people. This one could be far larger based on interest he’s seeing on Facebook, he said.

“This is way off the charts,” Schwilk said. “Everyone wants to come and show their support from all over the state, and even from Arizona.”

He said Trump supporters are glad to finally get a glimpse of the president in a state run by “a rogue California government.”

“We’d kind of been left out here hanging,” Schwilk said.

Others wish Trump would stay away.

“He’s coming to spread his fear, because in my view, he’s a terrible man,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group.

Alvarado predicted that Trump will also be met in the Los Angeles area by “plenty of people protesting. He’s non-gratis. California is a very diverse, multicultural state. It’s the antithesis of what Trump stands for.”

On Monday, Alvarado’s organization was among those supportive of a new federal lawsuit in San Francisco challenging the Trump administration’s plans to end temporary protected status for about 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan.

Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, suggested one reason Trump hasn’t been eager to return to California: It almost certainly won’t be part of his electoral calculus in 2020.

Clinton bested Trump by 30 percentage points in 2016. While the state produced two Republican presidents in the modern era — Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — rapid growth among Latino and Asian voters, who lean Democratic, have made the state far more difficult for the GOP.

Democrats hold every statewide office and control both chambers of the legislature by sizable margins.

“It wasn’t that long ago California was competitive in presidential elections, so there was ample incentive to go there,” said Mann, who has lived for the past three years in California, where he is now a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California.

There’s really no political incentive for Trump to visit now, Mann said. “What’s the point of doing it if all you’re going to do is stir up the opposition?”

When asked about the trip at Monday’s briefing for reporters, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that isn’t Trump’s aim.

“While . . . he may not have won that state, there are certainly a lot of support for this president, not just there, but across the country, and he looks forward to being there and presenting a lot of those specific policies,” she said.

De León said California “is not Trump country. It never has been, never will be.” But, he said, the state has a long tradition of accepting outsiders.

“The Golden State has always welcomed those from all over the world, even Queens,” de León said, referring to the borough of New York where Trump grew up.