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Gavin Newsom joins other governors to confront — and dine with — President Trump

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom races between meetings at the National Governors Assn. conference at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Washington, D.C., on Sunday.
(Phil Willon / Los Angeles Times)

Amid an escalating war of words with President Trump over border security and high-speed rail, Gov. Gavin Newsom arrived in Washington this weekend seeking ways to shield California from the administration’s policies while at the same time searching for common ground on issues including disaster relief.

Newsom’s two-day visit to the nation’s capital, his first political trip outside of California since taking office, started on Sunday at a National Governors Assn. conference when he met with fellow Democrats to share strategies on expanding access to healthcare and strengthening environmental protections at a time when he says both have been under attack by the Republican president.

Given the gridlock in Washington, the California governor and his politically aligned counterparts discussed ways states can move to expand Medicaid eligibility for the uninsured and provide other essential services for those in need.

“I don’t desire …. to wake up every day and go back and forth with the administration,” Newsom said Sunday. “However, we will defend ourselves and we will defend the people when we feel we are being harmed or treated unfairly or targeted.”

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Newsom said that during his visit to Washington he hopes to focus more on areas of agreement, and in that vein decided to attend a black-tie dinner at the White House Trump hosted Sunday for the visiting governors, though some Democrats had planned to boycott.

“I’m not going to let that get in the way of the thing that matters to me most and that’s protecting the American people, regardless of where they live, in California or in Kansas,” Newsom said. “I feel a deep obligation to rise above that.”

Still, just two days prior, Trump mocked Newsom over the future of California’s $77-billion high-speed rail system during a meeting with Republican governors, according to news reports. Newsom earlier this month called for scaling back the project, prompting Trump to demand that California return $3.5 billion in federal funding for the project.

In January, Trump criticized California’s forest management policies and said he had ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency not to send more wildfire disaster funding to state officials “unless they get their act together.” There’s no indication that Trump followed through with the threat.

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Newsom, in turn, has ripped into the president for declaring a national emergency in hopes of securing funding for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He has also criticized Trump as a climate change denier and for his administration’s attempts to weaken California’s tough auto emission standards.

But Newsom praised also Trump on Sunday for saying he would consider changes to the limit on the federal deduction for state and local taxes, part of the 2017 Republican tax plan that hits residents in states such as California and New York especially hard.

The governor has also urged the president to fulfill his commitment to help victims of last year’s deadly wildfires in Northern and Southern California.

On Sunday, Newsom met with Peter Gaynor, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to discuss recovery efforts for the fires. Newsom is urging FEMA to absorb the entire cost of cleaning up the cities devastated by the fires, including the town of Paradise, where thousands of homes and businesses burned.

“He couldn’t have been more gracious,” Newsom said of Gaynor. “I think he shared that same sentiment. Those are the pros within the agency ... the reason they got into emergency response is that they want to take care of folks.”

Newsom spent most of Sunday in meetings at Washington’s Marriott Marquis hotel, where the conference is taking place. He shunned seminars and other events and instead took one-on-one appointments with Govs. Jared Polis of Colorado, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island and others.

On Monday, the governor is scheduled to meet with the ambassador of Mexico, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and members of California’s congressional delegation, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.

Lujan Grisham said New Mexico and California align on many critical issues, including the need to expand access to healthcare. As border states, both have much at stake with Trump’s emergency declaration to divert defense funding to build a border wall, she said.

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Defense facilities in New Mexico could lose $150 million in funding, “which is huge for a state like mine,” Lujan Grisham said.

Newsom fears similar losses to military installations in California.

As governor of the nation’s most populous state, Newsom has a unique role: He is the de facto leader of his party’s resistance to the president’s policies but also must take action to implement California’s political agenda, Cal State Sacramento political scientist Kimberly Nalder said.

Newsom, aided by a Democratic supermajority in the state Legislature, has proposed a massive expansion of early childhood education programs, expanding healthcare coverage for young adult immigrants who entered the country illegally and spending $1.3 billion to build more homes and apartment units.

“He’s the leader of the largest section of the country that has a government that opposes much of what the Trump administration is doing,” Nalder said. “He’s got a bully pulpit that really no one else can match.”

On Sunday, Newsom spent time soliciting support for his proposal to create a state bulk purchasing system for prescription drugs, aimed at reducing their cost by leveraging the state’s significant purchasing power through Medi-Cal, Covered California and other state healthcare programs. Newsom would like to see other states join to help further drive down the price of medicine.

“Even if we’re not able to do that collaboratively, we’re encouraging other states to follow California’s example,” Newsom said.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said he welcomed Newsom’s vocal opposition to Trump’s policies, particularly his criticism of the administration’s work toward attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and efforts at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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“Gov. Newsom and the House Democrats think the same on many issues,” Lieu said. “I actually welcome Gov. Newsom’s more aggressive push back to Trump.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who leads the powerful House Intelligence Committee, said Newsom and California’s congressional delegation need to work together to keep Trump in check. He said the real test will be for California’s congressional Republicans, especially McCarthy, if Trump fails to provide federal relief for the deadly wildfires that hit some of the most conservative parts of California.

“The president has really made everything political and has sought to punish California,” Schiff said Sunday. “Will they go to bat for their own constituents?”

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phil.willon@latimes.com

Twitter: @philwillon

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