california wildfires

Trump Threatens Literal Scorched-Earth Policy to Punish California

Trump continues to blame Californians for their own burning troubles. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The 2018 wildfire season in California was the worst in living memory, consuming nearly 2 million acres of land, killing 87 people, destroying tens of thousands of homes, requiring an estimated $3 billion in public expenditures for debris removal, and costing insurance companies over $9 billion in payments. Unbelievable efforts by firefighters, and then the annual winter rains, have finally put out the fires. So the timing of this morning’s presidential tweet is very, very strange:

This is actually a revised tweet; the first version spelled Forest as “Forrest.” It says a lot about Trump’s focus on the subject that he bothered to make a correction.

It’s hardly a new thought from Trump: He tweeted something very similar in November when the lethal Camp Fire in Northern California was at its peak:

This is at best an insanely simplistic explanation of a wildfire crisis that has been fed by development patterns, drought, winds, and inadequate emergency communications, among other factors. Many California wildfires are in non-forested areas. And the federal government owns far more California land than the state government at which Trump keeps spitting contempt and threats. On other occasions Trump has adopted a right-wing conspiracy theory blaming California wildfires on state water policies he pretty clearly does not understand.

After his November tirade aimed at California, Trump quickly relented and signed the requisite disaster declarations allowing FEMA and other federal agencies to deal with the wildfires and their aftermath. But now, suddenly, he’s renewed his threats. Why would that be? Bloomberg reporter Erik Wasson has a guess:

Pique at new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who, as you may know, is from California — for her refusal to give him his border-wall money is a very likely motive for Trump’s sudden focus on last year’s wildfire problem and his simplistic and misguided “solution” for it. If so, it’s not working well so far, since Pelosi instantly responded by fingering Trump’s buddy and her fellow Californian, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and demanding that he join her in defending their state from Trump’s destructive threats.

It’s entirely unclear what, exactly, the president is saying in the first place. He doesn’t have the power to unilaterally cancel federal funding for a particular agency’s activities in a particular state. Perhaps he simply means he won’t issue any more disaster declarations for California wildfires, which is easy to say now but a bit of a reach when people are dying and homes are burning. Cutting off the state entirely from assistance available to Trump-friendlier jurisdictions regardless of their “Forrest Management” policies, would certainly put California Republicans, including McCarthy, in a very tough spot.

Media efforts to get an explanation from the administration produced this unintentionally comic response, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on what specific actions Trump has taken, how they were legally justified and what if anything would be done to help people who are depending on FEMA for food or shelter in the wake of the wildfires.

FEMA is running on a thin staff because of the partial government shutdown. Calls to the agency were answered by this recording: “Due to the federal funding hiatus we are not able to return voice mail messages about general press queries.”

Trump started this fire and he’ll have to figure out some way to put it out that doesn’t just look like a nasty jab at the nation’s largest state.

Trump Threatens Scorched-Earth Policy to Punish California