The mission of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is to coordinate the federal government’s response to “all domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made.”
Add this to the list: Disasters caused by a president.
That is what President Donald Trump managed to achieve Wednesday when he tweeted that he would withhold FEMA aid to wildfire-stricken Californians because of, in his view, how forests in the state had been mismanaged. That mismanagement, he said, caused the horrific wildfires that have scorched the state in the past two years.
The president left open a crack of possible help. He’ll withhold assistance “unless they get their act together, which is unlikely.”
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Reaction from California Democratic leaders was swift and predictable. Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted that “disasters and recovery are no time for politics.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said “attacking victims is yet another low for this president.”
The incident is just the latest example of how Trump tries to use his position like an imperial ruler. Before getting too worked up, however, it is wise to remember that Trump’s first method of presidential action is to threaten.
Should he not relent and really try to withhold emergency aid, he will likely face legal challenges from California, not to mention the political fallout he will incur when Democrats start running campaign ads in two years showing burned-out elderly residents of Paradise who could not be helped by the federal government in their greatest time of need.
Beyond the threat are these realities:
Californians pay taxes like other Americans. Those taxes help fund FEMA. So when Trump threatens to withhold financial help, he is shortchanging Californians of monies they help provide.
In describing its mission, the agency says on its website: “From day one, FEMA has remained committed to protecting and serving the American people. That commitment to the people we serve and the belief in our survivor centric mission will never change.”
Note that the mission statement does not say “serving only the people the president wants to help.”
Trump’s tweet also sows confusion, in that he ties forest management to emergency aid. They are different issues and cannot be linked the way he wants.
But one aspect that is related is that most of the forest land in California is owned by the federal government. Broken down, the federal government is responsible for 57 percent of the state’s forest land; state government, 2 percent; private owners, 39 percent. Seemingly this escapes the president.
Maybe in response Newsom should tell Trump that California will simply stop paying federal taxes. Newsom could put it in terms a businessman like Trump understands: We are not getting our money’s worth. The partial government shutdown has closed national parks like Sequoia-Kings Canyon, meaning no chance for visitors to see the wonders that belong to all Americans. The shutdown has also left many federal workers in the state without paychecks. That, in turn, hurts the business owners in those employees’ hometowns who rely on their spending on goods and services.
November’s Camp fire in Paradise killed 86 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures. Three people died in the Woolsey fire in Los Angeles-Ventura counties that same month. From north to south, horrific fires have scorched California over the past two years.
The president can play politics on issues like the border wall and resulting government shutdown. But he should re-read FEMA’s mission statement and post a new tweet that says “Never mind.” Federal aid after disasters is a right of all Americans.