President Trump injected new uncertainty into California’s wildfire recovery efforts, tweeting early Wednesday that he has ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency not to send more disaster funding to state officials “unless they get their act together, which is unlikely.”
Neither the White House nor FEMA provided clarification, in response to emails and calls, about whether Trump’s threat was bluster like other tweets he has sent making false assertions while criticizing the state’s fire management, or if he has actually ordered a funding cutoff to thousands of Californians trying to rebuild after the devastating fires late last year.
The president tweeted: “Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forrest fires that, with proper Forrest Management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
He later re-sent the message after correcting the spelling of “forest.”
Bluster or not, Trump’s threat alarmed California officeholders. Politicians from both parties criticized the tweet, though Republicans stopped short of condemning the author and expressed sympathy with his complaints about the state’s Democratic governance.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, whom the president calls “my Kevin,” waited six hours before reacting. He issued a statement attesting that “the president and his administration understand the severity of the devastation and have delivered for Californians.”
Yet he did not address in the statement whether Trump would indeed stop FEMA assistance. Nor did McCarthy say whether he’d raised the question with the president during a meeting at the White House on Wednesday afternoon on the 19-day-old partial government shutdown. Back at the Capitol later, McCarthy didn’t answer when a reporter asked if he’d talked to Trump about the disaster aid.
“I will continue to work with the administration and our California Republican and Democrat elected officials to ensure that California continues to receive needed disaster-related funding,” McCarthy said in his statement.
California’s Democratic politicians blasted Trump for his threat.
For new Gov. Gavin Newsom, the latest Trump rebuke to the state came a day after he had joined Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in a letter asking the administration to double its investments in taking care of federal land in Western states.
In a tweet directed at Trump, Newsom said the West Coast governors had “been put in office by the voters to get things done, not to play games with lives.”
Newsom also has proposed $305 million to thin thousands of acres of forests and brush, expand emergency crews and modernize California's 911 systems. Much of California's forests is federally managed or privately owned, putting them outside the state’s authority to manage.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) in her own tweet called on Republicans to condemn Trump and get him to reassure Californians needing assistance. She said his “threat insults the memory” of those who died or lost property.
Few California Republicans responded to Trump. Rep. Doug LaMalfa of Richvale, whose district includes areas of Northern California scorched by the Camp fire, said he shares Trump’s frustration with the state’s land management but said that Trump should remember the promise he made to the people of Paradise when he visited their destroyed town in mid-November, that the federal government would help them recover.
Trump’s tweet, LaMalfa said, “came out of left field, and it didn’t really help with this situation.” He added, as if addressing Trump, “Don’t make it about FEMA and the fire victims. If you want to cut off money, cut off money for stupid things like high-speed rail or other things that the federal government sends that have nothing to do with this subject.”
LaMalfa said he’s gotten no reassurance from the White House or FEMA about Trump’s intent, though he is hoping that the president is simply “saber-rattling, saying, ‘California, stop being stupid about everything.’ ”
Two Republicans who represent Paradise in the California Legislature — state Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber and Assemblyman James Gallagher of Yuba City — in a statement called Trump’s tweet "wholly unacceptable.”
Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove declined to criticize the president, though he contradicted the point of Trump’s tweet. The congressman said the federal government was at fault for its forest management, not California.
Both of California’s Democratic U.S. senators lambasted the president. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement, “Attacking victims is yet another low for this president.” Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted, “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.”
In November, the Camp fire obliterated the town of Paradise, killing 86 people and destroying more than 13,900 homes in the area; and the Woolsey fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties left three dead and leveled about 1,500 structures.
Paradise Town Councilman Steven Crowder, a Republican, called Trump’s tweet "disturbing."
Crowder added: “I’m sure I’m not alone — we lost our home, we lost our business, we lost our community — and I don’t think that anybody that’s been through that would be too supportive of that tweet.”
Feinstein and Harris have requested $9 billion in supplemental disaster funding from Congress. Their request was not considered last year and the new Congress has not taken up a disaster aid package. The House, newly under Democrats’ control, is planning to vote on a package as soon as next week.
FEMA is running on a thin staff because of the government shutdown. Calls to the agency were answered by this recording: “Due to the federal funding hiatus, we are not able to return voicemail messages about general press queries." Yet an aide acknowledged receipt of questions from The Times, and said the agency would try to provide answers.
It was unclear what prompted Trump to write his provocative tweet, though often he does so after seeing a report on Fox News.
Before his tweet at 9:36 a.m. Eastern time, the cable network’s “Fox & Friends” program — a Trump favorite — had extensive coverage of California matters. While it didn’t mention the wildfires, the show reported on Newsom’s inauguration as governor on Monday, prompting mockery by the show’s hosts.
“He’s already inviting illegal immigrants to his sanctuary state — everybody!” one said of Newsom. Another added: “His first order of business: expanding state-run healthcare, including full coverage to 138,000 illegal immigrants.” A separate Fox News report from San Diego had migrants reacting to Trump’s televised address Tuesday night, in which he demanded a border wall.
Times staff writer Joseph Serna in Los Angeles contributed to this report.