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The War Against California

2 weeks ago


The Trump administration has targeted the deep-blue state after dozens of lawsuits challenging his administration on issues from immigration to the environment.

They’re perpetually in court, on opposite sides. Each sees the other as the embodiment of bad practices and values. Sometimes the feud descends to name-calling and not-so-veiled threats of retribution.

No, it’s not the worst celebrity divorce. It’s California and the Trump administration, which have been engaged in an ongoing power struggle since Donald Trump took office in January 2017. But unlike other state-federal fights, this one is more evenly matched, as the Golden State uses its tremendous economic dominance and sheer size to thwart Trump administration policies.

“It’s true that California, on account of its size, can do an awful lot of stuff. The feds need California, for all sorts of purposes,” says Michael Greve, a professor at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School and an expert on federalism. Still, “California also needs the feds to be not too mean to it,” Greve adds. “It’s frequently a game of chicken. The question is, who blinks?”

Trump has been unabashed in expressing his distaste for California, which has come to define what liberals call “the resistance.” It’s the bluest state, with Democrats in all statewide offices and holding supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. It voted by a 2-to-1 margin for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign and last year led the nation in flipping seven out of seven targeted GOP congressional seats, including four in once ruby-red Orange County, making for an all-Democratic delegation from the coastal county.

But it’s the state attorney general, Xavier Becerra, who has been the sharpest thorn in Trump’s side, taking the president and his administration to court on matters ranging from environmental regulations and immigration to birth control coverage and transgender rights. California has sued Trump on nearly four dozen cases, coming close to the 48 lawsuits the Texas attorney general filed or joined against President Barack Obama during his entire eight years in office.


California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, has taken the Trump administration to court on matters ranging from environmental regulations and immigration to birth control coverage and transgender rights.

Becerra led a group of 16 states in challenging Trump’s emergency declaration on the border, a move the White House says allows the president to divert cash from other accounts to pay for the border wall Congress has refused to fund. Before the lawsuit, California had already pulled back National Guard members from the border, with Gov. Gavin Newsom saying he did not want the state’s guard force to be used in the “political theater” Trump had created there.

Trump was ready for the legal challenge from the West, remarking disdainfully in a Rose Garden appearance that the emergency declaration would surely would be routed through the famously liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he expected to lose before appealing to the Supreme Court, where two Trump-nominated justices sit.

While it’s not clear how the president will fare in the conservative-dominated Supreme Court (justices aren’t always predictable), Trump has sought to use his other authorities to punish or just needle California. In January, he threatened to cut off Federal Emergency Management Administration funds to fight wildfires in the state, saying California wasn’t managing forest fires properly. He tried to withhold certain funds from jurisdictions that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities” friendly to undocumented immigrants. California responded by declaring the entire state a sanctuary and by suing in court, so far successfully.


Most recently, the Trump administration stunned California officials by announcing it would not deliver $929 million in grant money for a troubled bullet train project Newsom had already scaled back, and threatening to claw back $2.5 billion in federal dollars the state has already spent on the project. Also this week, federal officials halted negotiations with California over a waiver the state has allowing it to impose stricter fuel economy rules than the rest of the nation. The state has had the waiver since 1963, and it has been credited with instigating a host of changes to reduce pollutants.

The president prior to that had signed a tax law that punishes residents of high-tax states, like California, by limiting the amount of state and local taxes people can deduct from their federal returns. In December, the administration moved to deport Vietnamese refugees – many of whom have lived in California for decades.

But while the executive has a great deal of power in federal-state clashes, California has amplified influence because of its population (40 million, the biggest in the country) and its economy (the fifth-largest in the world, if California were its own nation).

The Golden State is home to influential industries and companies, including Google, Intel, Walt Disney, Apple and HP. The state ranks second in the number (48) of Fortune 500 companies to which it is home.

“Whatever California does is going to affect a lot of things nationally,” even if the federal government is moving in a different direction, says Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University and an expert on state attorneys general. For example, while the current administration is seeking to weaken environmental regulations, California’s huge consumer market means industry tends to follow the state’s higher standards when it comes to products like cars and refrigerators. (California passed energy efficient standards for refrigerators in the 1970s and was followed soon by New York and Massachusetts. That created an industry standard even before then-President Ronald Reagan signed such rules, New America’s Lenny Mendonca and Laura Tyson write in a report, “The New Era of Progressive Federalism.”