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Politics

Capitol Journal: Newsom can thank Trump for saving him from his high-speed rail flub

Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom receives applause after delivering his first State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Sacramento.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom tripped on high-speed rail and fell flat. Then President Trump rode to the rescue and picked him up.

That’s how I read the latest California-Trump flap, this one over the state’s floundering bullet train project.

Trump, after all, is the Democratic Party’s best friend in California.

His classless demeanor was largely responsible for Republicans losing half their California congressional seats in November — seven.

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Only 36% of the state’s likely voters approved of the president’s job performance in a January poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra is practically living off the guy politically. He has sued the Trump Administration 46 times, raising his profile.

Conversely, Trump loves California Democrats. The left coasters are easy marks and ripe fodder for red state Trumpsters.

California Democrats and Trump feed off each other.

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After Newsom delivered an excellent State of the State address last week and then mucked it up by essentially denying he said what he did, Trump was right there with a helping hand.

He makes almost any Democrat look good by comparison. And if anyone could restore the bullet train’s popularity in California, it would be Trump by ridiculing it, even if justified. It’s $44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule.

Let’s back up.

Newsom said during his campaign for governor last year that he wanted to scale back the $77-billion Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail project.

And in his first State of the State speech, Newsom scaled it back — or so it seemed — using firm language. He wanted to complete a 171-mile line from Bakersfield to Merced and indefinitely shelve the rest.

More from George Skelton »

“Let’s be real,” Newsom said. “The project as planned would cost too much and take too long…. Right now there simply isn’t a path to get from … San Francisco to L.A…. However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”

“Look,” he added, “we will continue our regional projects north and south.” He was referring to environmental planning, electrifying a commuter line from San Jose to San Francisco and modernizing L.A.’s Union Station. “We’ll connect the revitalized Central Valley to other parts of the state and continue to push for more federal funding and private dollars.

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“But let’s just get something done once and for all.”

The message seemed clear.

Internet headlines read “Newsom puts brakes on bullet train” and “Newsom pledges to scale back high-speed rail.” An Associated Press lead paragraph said that the governor was “abandoning” the L.A.-to-San Francisco line.

Coverage of California politics »

No one I’ve talked to understands what then afflicted Newsom and his staff. His spokesman won’t try to explain. But they objected to the news coverage. Aides called reporters to “clarify” his speech. Chief of Staff Ann O’Leary tweeted, “Gov. Newsom fully committed to high-speed rail….”

Trump and Newsom then got into a ping-pong match on Twitter.

The president tweeted that “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars. They owe the federal government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster.”

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Newsom tweeted back, calling Trump’s words “fake news” and proclaiming: “This is CA’s money…. We’re not giving it back.”

Two days after his speech, Newsom told Los Angeles Times reporter Taryn Luna that any confusion about his rail stance was the media’s fault.

“I just think people in the media should pause before they run headlines and actually consider the facts,” the governor said.

Newsom deserved and got rave reviews for his speech. Then he overreacted to the coverage and botched it. Aides should have advised him to chill out, but they either didn’t know enough to do that or were too timid. Everyone showed their inexperience in a governor’s office.

Plus, Newsom may be getting weary and could need rest after hopping all over the state for photo ops since taking office. He has said that being governor isn’t “a desk job.” But mostly it is. It’s not the best venue for campaigning, but it’s a good place to think and get things done.

Maybe Newsom was trying to please everyone on high-speed rail. But that’s not always possible for a governor who leads.

Newsom might have been edgy about giving Trump an excuse for trying to grab back $3.5 billion in federal rail grants from California. But Trump doesn’t need an excuse for anything.

On Monday, the president canceled $929 million in grants and announced he’ll try to seize an additional $2.5 billion. He made Newsom look like a heroic protector of California money.

“You’ve got to give the governor a mulligan,” says Republican consultant Mike Madrid, using a golf term for a second-chance shot. “Hopefully he is going to govern more like the guy who gave the speech than the guy who mopped up after it.”

Has Newsom been wounded?

“It doesn’t hurt him at all,” says Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist who is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

“It only hurts if it becomes a pattern. He seems to be a smart guy. My guess is he’ll learn from this.”

Anyway, for almost two more years at least, there’ll be a helping hand in the White House to make this California governor look good by comparison.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter


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