SACRAMENTO — California appeared destined for near-Dickensian times after Donald Trump’s election. The state had just delivered a landslide winning margin for his opponent and rapidly evolved into the beachhead of the Trump resistance. The irritable president threatened to withhold federal funding from the nation’s most populous state.
Yet in an early turn from that discord, the Trump administration has delivered on three big asks in its short time in office, approving much-needed presidential disaster declarations related to the Oroville Dam crisis and winter storms. The declarations free up what’s likely to be millions of dollars in federal aid in more than a dozen California counties.
The approvals don’t necessarily represent a thawing between the president and the state that loves to hate to him. Reconciliation on the most partisan — and consequential — issues remains out of reach. But while the federal government has historically approved a large majority of disaster and emergency declaration requests, the process is not immune from political considerations, and previous presidents have made headlines with their denials. The administration’s responsiveness to California suggests an opening in Trump’s Washington for even the most critical, heavily Democratic states.
“Nothing is all that predictable under the current administration,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said when he touched down in the nation’s capital this week for his first visit since the inauguration. “So that could be a cause for alarm, but also a cause for some optimism.”
Despite his coolness toward California, which delivered a popular vote margin of over 4 million votes for Hillary Clinton, Trump has largely sidestepped opportunities for open conflict with the state. While moving this month to roll back national vehicle emission standards, the Trump administration elected not to immediately seek revocation of a federal waiver allowing California to impose its own, stricter rules — though the administration could still do so following a move by California regulators Friday to impose even stricter state emissions standards.
In talks with Trump officials about the disaster declarations at least, the Brown administration was struck by a lack of politics in the administration’s decision making, finding conversations professional and not dissimilar from other administrations.
With a fourth request pending, Brown said after meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Bob Fenton, “We feel we’re in synch with the federal emergency management team here … and I’m optimistic. I think President Trump cares about helping people in disasters.”
Like other presidents, Trump has also appeared to recognize the political opportunity in assisting states. Hours before issuing his first disaster declaration for California, in February, the president used the Oroville Dam emergency to advance his infrastructure agenda.
“The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that month. “Dams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair. In order to prevent the next disaster, we will pursue the president’s vision for an overhaul of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.”
The Brown administration hopes Trump could prove helpful on infrastructure and water in California, issues with multi-million dollar implications. Brown has called for billions of dollars in roadwork in California and is pushing forward with high-speed rail and a $15.5 billion Delta water plan.
“I think we’ll find a way here in Washington,” Brown said. “I can’t say we’re there yet, but you don’t build Rome in a day. You take steps … I’m here to negotiate, to make friends and to advance the cause of California.”
Brown has been unsparing at times in his criticism of the president. He warned before the election that a Trump victory would spell “game over” for climate change, and he has sharply criticized the president on health care and immigration. Joining House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Joe Biden on the Capitol steps as recently as Wednesday, Brown tore into Trump for what he called “this fake health care bill.”
“This is not about health care reform,” Brown said. “This is about disease, death and suffering. Mr. Trump, come down from Trump Tower, walk among the people and see the damage that this latest exercise in raw political power will wreck on the women, the men and the children of this country.”
The speech recalled Brown’s frequent trips to Washington when he was governor before, castigating Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s and standing out as a reliably partisan critic of Republican administrations.
But that was when Brown, who turns 79 next month, still held ambition for higher office. Now that he does not, his barbs are less frequent, even as other Democratic governors, including Jay Inslee of Washington and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, raise their profiles with steadfast criticism of the president.
For Brown’s purposes of negotiating infrastructure spending and disaster relief, said Bill Whalen, a former speechwriter for GOP Gov. Pete Wilson who is now a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, “These matters are not decided by spitballs and tweets lobbed 2,500 miles away. These matters are decided by being in the room and having conversations and coming to something that is mutually beneficial.”
He added, “This is not the old Jerry Brown who goes to Washington to beat the drum about running for president. This is the second version of Jerry Brown who has to go to Washington to defend California.”
Over four days in Washington, Brown met with the state’s Democratic and Republican congressional delegations, and with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican and close ally of Trump. A McCarthy spokesman said he and his California colleagues urged Trump to approve a disaster declaration for California and that “when discussing issues affecting California, McCarthy has found that the president has an open ear.”
Watching Brown maneuver in Washington from the West Coast, Bob Mulholland, a longtime Democratic strategist in California, said the governor “carefully chooses his words so most politicians he’s meeting feel like they’ve had a good conversation with him.”
He said, “It is not his job as governor of California to be the Bernie Sanders of the left.”
Yet congressional Republicans have publicly warned that resistance to Trump from the Democratic-controlled state legislature, including a proposal to expand protections for undocumented immigrants, could alienate the president. And at the state Capitol, Senate Republican Leader Jean Fuller criticized Brown for taking “the opportunity to insult the president” in his health care speech instead of “showing appreciation” for his approval of emergency assistance.
“Perhaps at some point the tantrums against President Trump will end and we can focus on building a better California,” she said in a prepared statement,
While there will be no accord between Brown and Trump on the federal budget, climate change or health care, Brown is pressing Trump on more provincial matters. Following a meeting with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who this month stalled a $650 million grant to electrify a commuter rail system in the Bay Area — a major priority of Silicon Valley business interests — Brown told reporters he was “cautiously optimistic” that the project might go forward.
“No, we don’t have a deal yet, but I would say that we’re opening doors, we’re getting ideas that could offer possibilities,” he said. “There is some light in the tunnel.”
The Trump administration did not extend Brown a lifeline on the project, and it was unclear if the governor will have any success. But John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said Brown has no better option than to negotiate.
“He’s got you by the nuts,” said Burton. “What are you going to say, ‘Go f— yourself? You try to do something … You go in and try to, you know, grab what you can.”