Capitol Alert

Here’s what you missed while Donald Trump dissed California this week

President Donald Trump escalated his feud with California this week, targeting Sacramento’s environmental policies, threatening intervention in its homelessness crisis and promoting efforts to build a controversial wall on the state’s southern border.

Overlooked amid all the uproar over those decrees, reports and court filings, the Trump administration also took some smaller actions that might end up having a practical impact on the water Californians drink and the way they save for retirement.

Environmental groups expressed alarm this week about a Sept. 18 Bureau of Reclamation memo proposing to hold back some of the water in a California reservoir typically released in the fall to maintain fish habitats in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The federal government manages the Central Valley Project, a system of dams and reservoirs that delivers water to California farmers and cities.

John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, warned that the latest move is just “one in a series of harmful federal water operation actions expected in the months to come.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, blasted the White House Thursday for joining a legal challenge to a new a state-run retirement plan offered to private-sector employees. The program, called CalSavers, was designed to provide a portable retirement plan for workers’ whose companies don’t offer one.

“President Trump’s administration continues to wage war against common-sense laws and policies, and in this case, his attacks may threaten the retirement security of millions of low-income California workers,” Newsom said in a statement

It was just the latest in a remarkable series of jabs the state’s leading officials exchanged with Trump over the course of a whirlwind presidential visit to the West Coast.

San Francisco’s homeless

Before the president even landed in California, White House officials released a report savaging California policies they argued have fueled the state’s homelessness crisis. It said San Francisco could cut its homeless population in half simply by lifting unspecified regulations that the White House says hinder construction.

While the president was on the ground in Southern California, he announced by tweet that his administration would revoke the state’s authority, established under the Clean Air Act, to set tailpipe emissions standards for cars that are more stringent than the federal government’s. California has used that power for more than 50 years to to clear skies of smog and compel carmakers to sell more efficient vehicles.

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And Trump was on his way back to D.C. when he announced the Environmental Protection Agency planned to slap the city of San Francisco with a notice of environmental violations over water pollution related to its homeless encampments.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra led 24 attorneys general in filing a lawsuit Friday – California’s 60th against the Trump administration – challenging the federal government’s authority to strip California of its power to set its own clean air standards. Many legal experts tend to agree that California has a good case.

Trump’s own officials, meanwhile, have acknowledged that the federal government has limited authority to address homelessness in California. While the president has threatened a crackdown, legal experts told McClatchy that would most likely be illegal, and any steps the administration takes to move people into shelters would require local cooperation.

Few California Republicans left

The fight over California’s water, however, could have near-term, tangible impacts. According to McManus, the move to hold back water in a federal reservoir this fall “will require the state to release extra water from its reservoirs to avoid violating state law. The state reservoir water in question would normally be used by residents across southern California, from LA to San Diego, to San Bernardino, and beyond.”

It’s part of a bigger effort by Trump officials to rewrite the regulations governing water flows in California, allowing the federal government to deliver more water to farmers in California’s Central Valley at the potential expense of endangered fish species. Those updated regulations are expected this fall, and environmental groups are bracing for a fight.

The battle over the CalSavers program, meanwhile, stems from a lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which is arguing that the retirement savings program is unnecessary and illegal under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Trump’s Department of Justice filed a “Statement of Interest” in the U.S. District Court where the case is currently pending.

Even if the courts ultimately invalidate Trump’s latest broadsides against California, his message was clear during his visit this week: His administration stands as a counterweight to progressive California politics.

No Republicans hold statewide elected office in California. Just seven of the state’s 53 congressional representatives are Republicans, down from 14 prior to the 2018 midterm election.

The remaining California Republicans in Congress cheered Trump’s moves. “My people plead for relief from” the California Air Resources Board, Rep. Doug La Malfa of Oroville, said at a press event. “I hope this administration does not give up at all in the fight.”

There’s also an appetite for Trump’s anti-California crusade among some of the state’s own elite, exemplified by the $15 million he raised for his re-election campaign over his two-day visit.

“There are millions of Californians who support President Trump and his policies, which are fueling the strong and growing economy,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign.

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.