President Donald Trump repeatedly blamed state officials in California for the extent and frequency of devastating wildfires in 2018, pointing the finger at what he called poor “forest management” and threatening to cut off federal disaster assistance to the state, whose incoming and outgoing governors were Democrats, and whose state legislature was controlled by the Democratic party.
Experts have concluded that these claims — that forest management policies and techniques were solely or primarily to blame for the historically-damaging 2018 wildfire season — are highly misleading and a gross over-simplification of the true causes, not least because the majority of California’s forests are owned by the federal government, not the state.
On 9 January 2019, Trump resumed his rhetorical attacks on California authorities and prompted inquiries from readers as to whether he had ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to stop providing financial assistance to wildfire aid efforts in California.
President Trump wrote in a tweet that “Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen.” The president added “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”:
Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 9, 2019
Trump has in the past threatened to end federal wildfire assistance to California, warning in November 2018 that the state should “Remedy now, or no more [federal] payments!”, and his January 2019 tweet appeared to constitute at least another similar threat.
However, it’s not clear whether the president had actually given any order to FEMA in January 2019. He wrote “I have ordered FEMA to send no more money,” but prefaced this with a condition: “Unless they [California authorities] get their act together …”
We asked FEMA whether they had received any recent order from President Trump regarding the disaster assistance program in California, or funding for it, but we did not receive a substantive response in time for publication. Similarly, we asked the White House whether they could provide a copy of such an order, when it was issued, and what precisely it instructed FEMA to do or cease doing, but we did not receive a response in time for publication.
FEMA’s website still stated that the agency was “actively contacting California Wildfire survivors to determine their housing needs and working diligently to identify additional short-term and long-term housing options.” However the web site also featured a disclaimer that “Due to the lapse in federal funding, this website will not be actively managed.”
It was clear that President Trump has threatened to end federal assistance for California’s wildfire emergency, but it was uncertain whether he had actually given FEMA an order to that effect as of 10 January 2019.
Even if Trump were to attempt to follow through on his repeated threats (and it’s not clear that he has), such efforts might be prohibited by federal law, which places certain restrictions on the President of the United States once he or she has declared an emergency, something Trump did for California in November 2018.
Title 42, Section 5192 of the United States Code sets out the powers and obligations of the president after a state of emergency has been declared:
In any emergency, the President may —
(1) direct any Federal agency, with or without reimbursement, to utilize its authorities and the resources granted to it under Federal law (including personnel, equipment, supplies, facilities, and managerial, technical and advisory services) in support of State and local emergency assistance efforts to save lives, protect property and public health and safety, and lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe, including precautionary evacuations …
(8) provide accelerated Federal assistance and Federal support where necessary to save lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate severe damage, which may be provided in the absence of a specific request and in which case the President —
(A) shall, to the fullest extent practicable, promptly notify and coordinate with a State in which such assistance or support is provided; and
(B) shall not, in notifying and coordinating with a State under subparagraph (A), delay or impede the rapid deployment, use, and distribution of critical resources to victims of an emergency.
On 8 January, the day before Trump’s “send no more money” tweet, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington sent the president a joint open letter requesting “immediate attention and increased efforts to responsibly manage the lands owned by federal agencies in our states.”