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Fact Check: Can Trump withhold FEMA money from California?

President Donald Trump Tuesday tweeted a threat to cut off funding to help victims of California wildfires.

Can Trump do it? The answer is complicated.

Trump’s idea was blasted by Democrats as a callous, empty threat and even California Republicans released statements saying it was the wrong approach to the problem of forest management.

A look at how all this could unfold:

Q: Can Trump withhold FEMA funds from California?

A: Trump already declared a national emergency in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. Current law states that where there is a disaster declaration, the president cannot “delay or impede the rapid deployment, use, and distribution of critical resources to victims of an emergency.”

That would mean he cannot order FEMA to stop sending money when a disaster has already been declared.

However, Trump does have unilateral power to make a disaster declaration when a governor requests it. Those declarations mean victims of the disaster are eligible to receive federal money to help with the aftermath. Trump could start refusing to make disaster declarations for California wildfires.

A governor can appeal a denial, but the appeal also goes to the president.

Q: Has a president ever threatened to cut off FEMA funding to a state before?

A: Presidents have denied requests for emergency declarations, but there is no evidence these denials were based on hostility towards a particular state. Studies have shown that when the president and governor belong to the same party, a disaster declaration request is more likely to be granted.

Q: How has the shutdown affected FEMA work in California?

A: Of FEMA’s 19,631 employees, 15,208 are considered essential employees and therefore work through the shutdown, according to a Department of Homeland Security shutdown plan. It appears the agency is working through the shutdown in California.

The FEMA website homepage says it is currently “actively contacting California Wildfire survivors to determine their housing needs and working diligently to identify additional short-term and long-term housing options.”

Q: What has Trump done to promote forest management in California?

A: Forest management budgets and regulations regarding forest management are written into state and federal law, so Trump is limited in what changes he could make. The budget for forest management on federal lands is set by Congress.

However, in Trump’s budget proposal to Congress last year, he proposed slashing the forest management budget by tens of millions of dollars in the last fiscal year and this one.

He has called repeatedly for California to more aggressively clear forests, a process many California Republicans argue is too burdensome. Environmental groups argue the red tape is needed to protect the environment.

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.


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