Trump versus California: One year into his presidency, tensions rise

Since Trump took office, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has filed two dozen lawsuits attempting to block administration actions, although he also said he has worked with federal officials when possible. (Jan. 22, 2018)

After sodden hillsides thundered into Montecito, obliterating scores of homes and killing nearly two dozen people, seven days went by before President Trump first acknowledged the disaster.

Even then, word came not from Trump, but from his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who noted in a two-sentence statement that the president "has been briefed and will continue to monitor the mudslides."


The statement, issued a day after local authorities effectively announced that no more survivors would be found, offered sympathy for the families involved and "prayers for those who remain missing."

The week between the destructive slide and the brief mention partly reflected the general chaos of Trump's tenure. It also symbolized the disconnect between Trump and California that has veered from arm's distance to outright hostility over the last year.

Trump's disregard of the nation's largest state has fueled fears about his administration's impact while spurring a resistance movement that has put California in the forefront of Democratic efforts to take control of Congress in November's midterm election. California has taken on the role played by Texas during the Obama years: trying various means to thwart the will of the federal government in a clash over state and national preeminence that is as old as the United States itself.

One year after it found a target on its back, the strongly Democratic state has yet to feel as much damage as some in California feared, largely because Trump has found it difficult to translate his campaign pledges into reality. But threats persist in 2018.

The new tax plan, which sharply limited deductions used extensively in California, and GOP threats to curb Medicaid spending continue to pose billion-dollar risks for millions of the state's residents and to its budget. Administration efforts to curb immigration, both legal and illegal, expand offshore oil drilling and punish states that have legalized marijuana promise new clashes as Trump's second year in office begins.

Far from sidelining California's anti-Trump majority, the president's first year in office has also increased the odds of electoral gains for Democrats. Democrats have targeted enough GOP-held districts in California to make up nearly one-third of the seats needed to flip the House.

In the 14 California House seats held by Republicans, 67 Democrats are running, one more than the number of Democratic candidates in the last three elections combined, according to statistics compiled by Rob Pyers, research director for the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyses state races.

"Eye-popping," Pyers said

The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its relationship with California or the impact of its policies on the state. Trump's allies, however, have argued that his moves so far broadly followed his campaign promises and benefit Americans wherever they reside.

Democrats here have developed a multi-pronged response to Trump that mixes conciliation and confrontation, depending on the issue.

Gov. Jerry Brown pushed back several times in last week's budget announcement against the idea that California was at war with the administration.

"I wouldn't call it enmity," Brown said. "There are certain policies that are radical departures from the norm, and California will fight those, whether it's on immigration or offshore drilling and other things like that. … We're going to have an election in 2018, and I'm hoping that will steady the ship of state in Washington."

Others have been more aggressive.

Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has filed two dozen lawsuits attempting to block administration actions, although he also said he has worked with federal officials when possible.


One suit forced the Trump administration to temporarily restore protections for young immigrants brought to this country illegally as children. They had been given legal status under the program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, until Trump last year announced it would end in March.

"There's a philosophy of exclusion that drives Donald Trump. If you're not like him, not in his inner circle, do not agree with him… in his mind you don't count," Becerra said.

"We're not looking to pick a fight, but we're ready for one, and we'll take it if it comes."

Californians and those outside the state point to a number of factors that have heightened the dispute with Trump. The president has sought to eradicate policies favored by his predecessor President Obama; California epitomizes nearly all of them.

Many also point to personal pique: Hillary Clinton's California margin over Trump was nearly 4.3 million votes, more than accounting for her popular-vote victory. Trump, contradicting the available evidence, has blamed that loss on fraudulent voting.

In a Fox News interview last year, Trump declared the state to be "out of control." In his Twitter feed he has been unrelentingly negative toward California for years, sniping at the state's taxes, gas prices, construction costs and, more than a dozen times, the shooting in 2015 of a San Francisco woman, Kate Steinle, by a man who repeatedly entered the country illegally.

Trump finished his first year as president without visiting California, omitting even the post-disaster visit that once was considered obligatory — although he made repeated trips to more friendly states like Texas and Florida after disaster struck them. He has spoken with Gov. Brown once, in connection with the massive wildfires in Northern California last year.

Early in January, the administration took three actions in a single day that typified the clash between Trump and California: a crackdown on legal marijuana, a tightening of immigration rules and a new plan to resume sales of oil drilling leases off the coast.

Adding to the West Coast teeth-gnashing: The administration soon exempted Republican-led Florida from new drilling on the grounds that its beaches were important for recreation and tourism.


California officials give Trump credit for responding as past presidents have in approving five major disaster declarations and two additional emergency declarations. Those paved the way for federal aid. But that is the one obvious benefit so far, even as the span of potentially negative impacts has expanded.

"On a variety of fronts, you can argue that there's greater instability at the federal level this year than last year," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

State officials say the new tax law signed by Trump in December could punish 18 million Californians who deduct state and local taxes from their federal returns, since the maximum deduction would be limited to $10,000 — $6,000 less than the current average deduction.

State officials also have predicted the potential loss of thousands of jobs in industries like clean energy, which would no longer enjoy tax benefits, and disruption of the housing market because of new limits on mortgage deductions.

More problems loom if Republicans succeed in further altering healthcare. Congress this past year repeatedly failed to reauthorize the federal Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers 1.3 million Californians. Medicaid health insurance covers 14 million Californians under the moniker of Medi-Cal — roughly 1 in 3 state residents.

A decline in funding for those programs — or changes in the ratio paid by the federal government — could dramatically increase the state's healthcare costs.

Organizers of anti-Trump political groups say their numbers have risen because Californians perceive danger on many fronts.

"There are people who have always been under threat," said Kathy Stadler, a volunteer organizer for Indivisible San Diego, which has worked to elect liberals there and across the country. Now, she said, "groups that haven't been under threat are under threat — in a way they haven't experienced before."

That feeling is broadly shared. A poll by the Public Policy Institute of California last month found that only 28% of Californians approved of Trump as president. Even in the Central Valley, historically receptive to Republican candidates, just over 1 in 3 voters backed Trump.

Views are hardened, suggesting that the feud between Trump and the nation's biggest state has little chance of petering out. For the foreseeable future, it energizes both sides.

"There's no more reliable applause line for any California politician than to attack Trump — and Trump realizes just as much benefit from his base for ridiculing California," said Dan Schnur, an advisor to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson during Democrat Bill Clinton's presidency.

"So far in 2018, Trump has probably had nicer things to say about North Korea than he has about California," Schnur added. "And California politicians don't miss an opportunity to respond in kind."

Twitter: @cathleendecker