President Trump’s well-documented clashes with California owe plenty to politics, culture and personality. But at bottom, what drives the president’s toxic relationship with the nation’s most populous state is this: his near-obsessive desire to be seen as a winner.
No state represents losing for Trump more than California, whether in business or politics. No surprise, then, that he didn’t rush to visit. He arrives on Tuesday later into his term than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, back when presidents weren’t flying routinely; FDR crossed the continent by train.
Trump’s trip, to inspect prototypes for a border wall with Mexico that many Californians loathe, is expected to draw large protests. Besides that inspection in San Diego, the president plans to meet with members of the military and attend a high-dollar fundraiser in Beverly Hills.
As a candidate, Trump used to boast he could become the first Republican to win the state, and its 55 electoral votes, in nearly three decades. Instead, Hillary Clinton won California by 4.3 million votes, more than accounting for her nearly 3-million advantage in the popular vote nationwide. California’s result became the basis for Trump’s false claim that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Clinton.
It was a loss that stung long after his inauguration.
“If Abe Lincoln came back to life, he would lose New York and he would lose California,” Trump fumed to the Associated Press last year.
His resentment toward California extends beyond the election, however. The Golden State is the seat of an entertainment industry that dismissed him as a reality television creation, the home of a business culture where his real estate dreams were stymied and, now, the headquarters of a resistance movement that has tried to cast a cloud over his legitimacy as president.
One of his most embarrassing controversies, an imbroglio over a preelection payment to a porn actress to keep quiet about an alleged affair, is playing out in a Los Angeles courtroom.
Trump has at times tried to comfort himself with the notion that the state’s protesters and its courts, which have ruled against him on significant immigration issues, stand apart from other Americans and other judges.
Barry Bennett, a former political advisor to Trump, said, “Never in history have the political beliefs in California versus the rest of the nation been so different.”
Yet much of the nation, when it comes to Trump, is siding with Californians. The president’s popularity is above 50% in only 12 states, according to the polling organization Gallup. In California, just 22% of voters approved of the job Trump was doing as president in a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in November; 66% disapproved. That suggests a significant loss of support even from his dismal election showing, though two-thirds of Republicans remain supportive.
Decades before Trump, Republicans were using the liberal state as a foil, and ambitious California Democrats have long seen huge political upside in feuding with Republican presidents. Several Democrats running for statewide office this year bragged in fundraising appeals last week that they were defending California against a lawsuit from Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions over immigration enforcement — a suit that Sessions came to California last week to trumpet, in a sort of warm-up act for Trump.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who is also fighting the federal government’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations, last week accused the Trump administration of “going to war” with the state.
The White House insists that Trump comes in peace — though with an edge that reflects the less than peaceable relationship.
“If anybody is stepping out of bounds here, it would be someone who is refusing to follow a federal law, which is certainly not the president,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Friday. “We’re going for what we hope to be an incredibly positive trip.”
Many Republican politicians in the state won’t be welcoming Trump, either. Of more than a dozen GOP candidates The Times contacted, most said they had no plans to attend his events.
"I'm telling them to stay away,” said one Southern California Republican consultant who requested anonymity to avoid alienating the president. “We’re not going to diss the president, but we’re not going to go do a photo op with him, either."
Another consultant said a client seeking an Orange County congressional seat would not participate in Trump’s activities, to avoid making the president any more of an issue in the local campaign than he already is.
Many of the state’s Republicans don’t share Trump’s hostility toward immigrants. Kevin Faulconer, San Diego’s Republican mayor, likes to highlight his city’s business ties with Tijuana and told The Times in an interview last year that the area's Latino community "helps define us."
For Trump, however, the state — by its diversity, liberalism and aggressive environmental regulation — provides an especially vivid version of a potential future America that he vilifies.
He has been furious with what he sees as a dangerous protection of immigrants in the country illegally by so-called sanctuary cities — the object of Sessions’ lawsuit. Trump called Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf a “disgrace” after she issued a warning about imminent immigration raids, and he assailed her again Saturday night at a raucous political rally near Pittsburgh.
The White House used its Twitter account last week to accuse the state of putting “the interests of criminal aliens ahead of the well-being of American citizens.” That tone surprised some observers, coming from the White House’s official account.
“This tweet is written as though you are talking about a hostile foreign power,” Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, responded on Twitter. “You do realize that you’re talking about an American state, right?”
Trump’s own animosity is familiar and long-standing. “California in many ways is out of control, as you know,” he said during an interview last year with Fox News. “And from an economic standpoint, people are leaving California and going to Texas and other places that run in a different manner.”
His list of California sparring partners is lengthy: Brown; Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last Republican governor of the state, who has spoken out against Trump and replaced him as host of “Celebrity Apprentice”; Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who leads her party in the House; Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, the most visible Democrat in the congressional investigation of Russian election interference; and Sen. Kamala Harris, who is considering a presidential run.
“The president has shown himself to be many things, including vindictive,” said Schiff, whom Trump has derided as “Little Adam” and “Leakin’ Adam.” He predicted Trump would face an unfriendly welcome.
Despite Trump’s insistence while campaigning in the California primary in 2016 that “we're going after places that no other Republican goes after,” a proposal to place staff and other resources in all 50 states was quickly batted down, according to one former campaign staffer who requested anonymity to avoid alienating colleagues. Clinton beat Trump in California by a nearly 2-1 margin, 62% to 32%.
Business deals haven’t come easily for Trump in California, either. His largest land holding is Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes.
In the 1980s, he backed away from buying stakes in the San Diego Padres and the Hollywood giant MCA. In Los Angeles, he tried and failed to build the tallest building in the world on Wilshire Boulevard, and put in a low-ball offer to buy the Beverly Hills Hotel, one of his hangouts, but lost the bidding to oil magnate Marvin Davis.
In 1988, Trump downplayed his interest in the state, with a characteristic knock.
“I’m really concerned about the whole earthquake situation in L.A.,” he said. “I am a tremendous believer that someday Las Vegas may be the West Coast.”
Staff writers Brian Bennett and Christi Parsons in Washington and Christine Mai-Duc in Los Angeles contributed.