The day after California began burning, Donald Trump boarded a plane for a quick stop in Iowa while on the way to visit his border wall.
It was August 18, the second day of the Democratic convention, and just one week after a hurricane-force line of thunderstorms known as a derecho had wrought widespread power outages, destroyed crops, and left countless damaged Hawkeye State homes and businesses in its wake.
Seventy-five thousand people in Linn County, Iowa were still without power; almost every building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa was damaged in some way (with more than 1,000 homes declared uninhabitable); and with trash pickup halted, animals were scavenging through the bags of rotting garbage piling up in the streets.
The President of the United States spent just over an hour on the ground to receive a briefing on recovery efforts at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, during which he praised Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds for having called him, bragged about the global Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on illegal crossings at the US-Mexico border, and touted his own administration’s response to the devastation. He then boarded Air Force One and flew to Yuma, Arizona to view his wall and deliver campaign-style remarks on immigration.
Within four weeks, two of the largest fires in California history had merged to become a conflagration that, as of Sunday, had consumed 3,200,000 acres. Washington and Oregon, too, have been hit hard by a combination of high winds, record temperatures, and dry conditions. More than 20 Oregonians are dead, and approximately 10 percent of that state’s population were under evacuation alerts as of Friday.
But despite fires raging across a significant portion of America’s west coast, spewing smoke that by now has reached across the entire country, a disaster of this scale was only worth around two hours of President Trump’s time on Monday.
Trump, who had overnighted in Nevada after a pair of campaign events on Sunday, took a short break from campaigning to take in another airport-based briefing on the ongoing disaster.
“Great to be here,” Trump said, as he boasted about having signed disaster declarations for the states affected by the wildfires this year (this is one of the president’s core job functions). He then renewed years-old complaints about how the Golden State manages its forests, implying that the state government’s malfeasance — rather than climate change — is responsible for the increasing size and intensity of the fires.
After arguing with the state’s top environmental official about the existence of human-made climate change and presenting medals to a group of California National Guard aviators who’d saved people from the fires by helicopter, Trump re-boarded Air Force One to continue campaigning.
Trump has been fixated on “forest management” ever since 2018, when he first claimed that Finnish President Sauli Niinistö had told him Finns don’t have the same problems with their forests because they, in Trump’s words, “spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things.”
He continued this nonsensical line of argument on Tuesday, when during a phone interview with the hosts of Fox and Friends, he claimed that other countries — with very different climates and geography to the west coast of the US — don’t have problems with forest fires.
“You have forests all over the world. You don’t have fires like you do in California. In Europe, they have forest cities. You look at countries — Austria and so many countries — they live in the forest and… they don’t have fires like this, and they have more explosive trees,” said the President (trees do not, in fact, have explosive properties).
While Trump’s most recent invocations of “forest management” as a cause of the wildfires appeared to be an attempt to downplay the role played by climate change, one former White House official said his forestry fixation is, was, and has always been a way for him to attempt to assign responsibility for the fires to California’s Democratic-dominated state government.
“He doesn’t care one bit about managing forests — or much of anything for that matter — unless he can spin it as a failure of governance under the Democratic Party,” said the official.
Another former Trump administration official, ex-Department of Homeland Security Chief of Staff Miles Taylor, said Trump’s disdain for the state with the largest economy in the US extended not just to the elected officials in charge, but to the people who vote for them.
Taylor, who has previously stated that Trump expressed a desire to cut off funding for disaster relief to California after a string of wildfires that devastated the state in 2018, said in an interview that the President specifically ordered a halt to individual assistance for Californians who’d been displaced from their homes or otherwise affected by the disaster.
“He didn’t want the people in California to get the money, because he basically said he didn’t think that they deserved it,” said Taylor, who added that after then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen explained the people in question were victims of natural disasters, Trump began ranting about how badly he’d been treated by former California Governor Jerry Brown and his successor.
“He talked about how terrible Jerry Brown was as governor, how bad Jerry Brown’s been for him, that Jerry Brown hasn’t supported him politically, and then Gavin Newsom,” he said.
Taylor said that Trump was particularly upset by Newsom’s first State of the State address.
“Trump said: ‘Did you see that f**king thing? It was a disaster. And this guy is against me on everything. And there’s no way I’m gonna support California, there’s just no way… If they don’t support me, I’m not gonna support them,’” Taylor explained. “It was a very clear political statement of him saying that if the past two governors aren’t supporting me, and the people of California don’t like me politically… do not provide money, don’t provide disaster relief.”
And though Trump has by now signed declarations to assist victims of wildfires in Oregon and Washington as well as California, Taylor said Trump has often had little interest in providing federal assistance to those Americans he deems insufficiently supportive of him politically, and would often complain about the leadership of a given state when asked to sign disaster declarations.
“It happened enough times that the leadership of DHS and DEMA would be worried about the President politicizing it when where was a disaster in a blue state,” he said.