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Still no clarity on Trump’s threat to cut off aid to California fire victims

Still no clarity on Trump’s threat to cut off aid to California fire victims
An American flag stands among burned rubble in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 13. (David Paul Morris / Associated Press)

Members of the California congressional delegation say they still have no idea whether President Trump will follow through on his threat to cut off federal disaster funding to the state.

Representatives for the White House and Federal Emergency Management Agency have not responded to daily requests from the Los Angeles Times for clarification of whether funds are actually being cut off for California as thousands of people are recovering from the worst fire in state history, and what precedent or legal authority there might for such a move.

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Trump tweeted Wednesday that he has ordered FEMA not to send more disaster funding to state officials “unless they get their act together, which is unlikely.” Trump is pushing the state to allow greater logging and timber sales. He says that will reduce the risk of forest fires, though experts disagree.

His missive sent shock waves through the communities still recovering from two major fires that killed 89 people and burned more than 15,000 structures, with state and local lawmakers of both parties expressing outrage and concern.

Late Monday, the White House released a statement that seemed only to add to the confusion and concern, saying Trump “has directed his administration to look at all options for ensuring California effectively mitigates against forest fire.” The statement did not address Trump’s threat to cut off disaster funding

More than a dozen members of California’s congressional delegation, all Democrats except for Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), met Thursday evening to compare notes and discuss how to respond.

“We want to get more information about whether that was just the president popping off or whether in fact the funds are being cut off,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), the chairwoman of the California caucus, said.

Lofgren said the members also discussed the possibility of a lawsuit if Trump does try to restrict the fire recovery funds.

Several California members said they are trying to figure out if the president can legally withdraw funds once a disaster declaration is made, or if Trump was perhaps referring to not making a new declaration for future disasters.

Congress has yet to approve a disaster aid package, and many Californians are relying on money from FEMA to assist in the recovery. The House is scheduled to vote on an aid package as soon as Wednesday. Its chances in the Senate are uncertain.

Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) said there is a sense of “genuine concern” among many in the delegation that the president could follow through.

“This is serious. California like every other part of the country has its disasters, and it’s appropriate that the federal government respond, whether it’s wildfires in California or whether it’s floods or whether it’s hurricanes in Texas or Florida or whether it’s tornado alley,” Costa said.

Much of the forestland in California is managed privately or by the federal government, not the state. Earlier this year, Trump issued an executive order increasing the amount of timber cut in federal forests and he has been critical of how California manages its lands.

LaMalfa, whose district includes the town of Paradise that was destroyed, said he thinks the president was simply tweeting out of frustration with California forest management practices, or with criticism made against him by state legislators and the governor. Gov. Gavin Newsom had taken several swipes at the president in his inaugural address the day before.

“Maybe that just caused him to sit down and tweet something,” LaMalfa said. “I haven’t seen any actual action be pushed out through FEMA or any of our White House contacts.”

LaMalfa’s staff said when they spoke with FEMA officials last week, the agency had not received a formal order from the president to cut off the funds.

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Costa said that lack of action is not enough to calm Democrats' fears. “I don’t think anyone wants to take that reassurance at this point as a certainty,” he said.

There have been multiple instances of the president tweeting that he is directing an agency or department to implement a policy or order, but then weeks or months pass before White House staff follow through with the actual order. For example, Trump tweeted in July 2017 that the military would no longer accept transgender applicants, but did not issue formal instructions to the military until a month later.

It is rare for all 53 California House members to meet together and craft a united position on something that potentially affects the state, especially considering the close relationship some of the seven Republicans have with the president.

All seven California Republican members, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), responded to the invitation for an all-delegation meeting in a letter stating that Republicans had issued their own individual responses and "are actively working within the administration to lay out our reasons clearly, calmly and compellingly, and are confident that we can prevail upon the president."

It also urged their Democratic colleagues to remember that “a drop of honey gathers more flies than a gallon of gall.”

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who led the effort to send the letter, told The Times that he didn’t attend Thursday night’s meeting in part because of a letter Democrats sent to Trump on Wednesday that had “some pretty difficult language.” The Democrats’ letter, signed by 44 California members, called the president’s tweet “appalling,” “callous” and “dishonest.”

LaMalfa, who signed Calvert’s letter, said he agreed that the Democrats’ letter was “harsher than it needed to be” and hoped that him coming to the meeting would help the delegation keep its focus on helping fire victims.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the Republicans in the delegation to task Thursday for not having more forceful responses to the president’s tweet.

“I look to my Republican colleagues from California to stop looking the other way on the president's irresponsible behavior nationally. But they know people died, communities were wiped out, and they're just cavalier about it because of the president of the United States," Pelosi (D-San Francisco) told reporters Thursday.

Times staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this report.

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