The president clearly enjoys needling the nation’s most populous state. 

Since his inauguration, Donald Trump has taken aim at California for its policies on immigration and environmental protection, its left-leaning cultural institutions, its poverty rate (which, if you factor in the cost of living, is the highest in the nation), its crime rate (which isn’t), its liberal governor and its alleged tolerance of voter fraud (a charge that’s completely unfounded). 

The state is accustomed to being a political foil of the right. Half a century ago Ronald Reagan rode popular resentment of UC Berkeley protesters and Hollywood lefties to the governorship. These days, on Fox News and right-leaning social media circles, “San Francisco” often is invoked as a synonym for “veritable hellhole.”

But Trump has taken the familiar script to new extremes. In court documents, regulatory maneuvers, executive orders and, of course, Twitter tirades (more than 55 negative tweets about California since Election Day), the president has assailed the Golden State as a dystopia of liberal laxity — and a cautionary tale of life under Democratic rule.

Nobody summed it up quite like Kimberly Guilfoyle — Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ex-wife and a former Fox News personality who became Donald Trump Jr. girlfriend and chair of Trump’s fundraising committee. She told the Republican National Convention: “If you want to see the Socialist Biden-Harris future for our country” look no further than California, “a land of discarded heroin needles in parks, riots in streets and blackouts in homes.”

The California-bashing might be all the more irresistible this year now that the state’s junior U.S. senator, Kamala Harris, is running for vice president. 

For the president, the political risk of taking potshots at a state he lost by a 2-to-1 margin in 2016 is minimal. And anti-California sentiment might be an effective way to rally his base. But does he have a point? 

Let’s explore whether the president’s boldest claims about California claims stand up to scrutiny.

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Wildfires: California needs to manage its forests!

The claim: 

In each wildfire season since his inauguration, Trump has taken California to task for its “gross mismanagement of the forests,” often threatening the state’s federal funding if lawmakers here don’t take corrective action. Famously, at a 2018 press conference in Paradise after the Camp Fire tore through the town killing dozens, he insisted that the state should do more to “take care of the floors” of the forest and pointed to Finland as a shining example: “They spend a lot of time raking and cleaning.”

He repeated the line this year, with large swaths of northern California engulfed in flames. “You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests,” he told campaign rally-goers in Pennsylvania. “Maybe we’re just going to have to make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us.”

The facts:

To get the low-hanging fruit out of the way: Finland does not have a policy of forest-raking. 

But while the Paradise press conference elicited much snickering and trolling from Americans and Fins alike, the president was onto something. Many experts acknowledge that along with climate change, poor forest management is a prime reason for California’s increasingly severe wildfires. For generations, public land managers have prioritized putting out wildfires as quickly as possible, with little emphasis on forest thinning or controlled burns. (Though this is starting to change). As a result, shrubs, dead trees and saplings have built up across the American west as so much kindling.

But here’s the rub: The state only manages 3% of the state’s forests. The federal government is responsible for more than half.

Learn more about California’s endemic wildfire problem here.

Immigration: The sanctuary state is “out of control”!

The claim: 

In one of his opening broadsides against the Golden State just weeks after his inauguration, Trump denounced California as “out of control” for its “sanctuary state” policy on immigration. And again, as he occasionally does when he and California are at odds, he threatened to pull the state’s federal funding. The threat was soon followed by an executive order to cut specified federal crime-fighting grants to the state. Then came the lawsuit: In March 2018, the U.S. Justice Department sued California to invalidate three state laws that make it harder for federal immigration agents to arrest and detain suspected undocumented immigrants. 

The facts:

What is California’s “sanctuary state” policy? The three California laws at issue: 

  • Restrict state and local police from cooperating with federal immigration agents
  • Require employers to alert their employees before any federal immigration inspections and prohibit them from allowing such inspections if federal agents do not present a warrant
  • Subject immigration detention facilities to additional state oversight

None of those state laws mandate the release of undocumented immigrants, so the claim by the president that “thousands of dangerous (and) violent criminal aliens” have been released as a result of California’s sanctuary policies is wrong. So far, courts have not allowed the Trump administration to make federal funding conditional on repealing these laws.

But whether the three laws are illegal or unconstitutional is an unsettled question. California and other like-minded cities and states have long argued that the U.S. government cannot compel state and local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal law. If that line of argument rings a bell, it’s the same “states’ rights” argument, grounded in the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, that the political right has used for generations. 

Lower courts have already struck down parts of the California law that govern employers. But in a decisive win for California in June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Department of Justice’s challenge to the state law that prevents state and local cops from cooperating with immigration authorities. 

Intentional blackouts!

The claim: 

This August, a crippling heat wave led grid operators to order a wave of power cuts across Northern California. At their national party convention a week later, Republicans had a field day.

“How can Joe Biden claim to be an ally of the light when his own party can’t even keep the lights on?” Trump said in his acceptance speech. 

Trump and many other conservative commentators have warned that California’s power troubles stem from the state’s overreliance on unreliable renewable energy sources like solar and wind. In a string of tweets, the president warned that Biden’s energy policy “would take California’s failed policies to every American!”

The facts:

It’s true that California relies heavily on renewable energy sources to power its electric grid. At last count, a little over a third of the state’s electricity comes from carbon-free sources like solar, wind and geothermal. Adding in hydro and nuclear brings that figure up to two-thirds. 

It’s also true that many of those green sources, like solar and wind, sometimes don’t help when you need the extra juice. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.

But it’s not clear that either of those are directly to blame for the recent string of blackouts. 

The real culprit appears to be a combination of mismanagement and bad luck. Energy regulators and system operators failed to forecast the spike in energy demand and didn’t order the state’s utility to acquire enough power ahead of time. And when the August heat wave hit California, it hit the entire American west at once, meaning power suppliers in other states didn’t have any excess power to sell to us. And just when we needed it, the state’s Plan B failed: At least one of our ready-when-you-need-it gas power plants failed to come online.

But having fewer dependable energy sources without enough energy storage can expose the vulnerabilities of the state’s grid when multiple things go wrong at once. And this time, they did. 

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High-speed rail: You’re fired!

The claim: 

In February 2019, President Trump declared California’s long-delayed, budget-busting bullet train a “disaster,” asserted that Gov. Gavin Newsom had canceled the project, and vowed to claw back federal funding. A few months later, his Transportation Department demanded the repayment of nearly $1 billion in grant funding from California. The state sued.

The facts:

Contrary to the president’s claim, California was not “forced to cancel” the bullet train project. But you can see where he might have gotten that idea.

In his State of the State speech last year, Newsom conceded that “there simply isn’t a path” to complete the high-speed rail project as originally planned. For now, he said, rather than pursue a San Francisco to Los Angeles line, the state would focus on connecting Merced to Bakersfield. 

For the governor, this was stating the obvious: The decades-old plan to connect California’s two biggest population centers at the speed of European-style rail had become a fiscal albatross around the neck of state lawmakers. Newsom was hoping to rein in those expectations. 

But the Trump administration (along with much of the California press corps) initially took Newsom’s announcement as an out-and-out nixing of the bullet train.

Since then, the president has argued that by changing the scope of the project, the state reneged on its initial multi-billion-dollar funding agreement with the feds. 

Who’s right? The project is now tens of billions of dollars over budget and has been saddled with litigation, delays and political opposition from Republicans in Sacramento and Washington D.C. Supporters of the project still say it remains the best way to integrate the state’s economic hard cases with its coastal boomtowns—and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

The lawsuit is ongoing.

Homelessness: It’s causing “tremendous pollution”!

The claim: 

Beginning with a fact-finding trip to California in September of 2019, Trump has been vehemently highlighting the state’s homelessness crisis. The president has directed much of his ire at San Francisco (home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi), where he claimed “tremendous pollution,” including needles and feces from the city’s homeless population, is “pouring into the ocean.” 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency followed up with a sternly worded letter to Newsom noting the “potential water quality impacts” of homeless encampments in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The agency hasn’t taken any additional action yet.

In a Christmas tweet, the president warned of federal intervention:

The facts:

No one disputes that California faces a crisis of homelessness. Though it’s inherently difficult to count the number of people experiencing homelessness at any given time, the latest federal estimate puts the statewide tally at more than 150,000 people — the highest number since at least 2007. And it’s getting worse. A late 2019 report from the Trump administration’s Housing and Urban Development agency estimated that California’s unhoused population had increased by 16.4% in the previous year alone. COVID-19 and the corresponding economic recession are likely to push even more people onto the streets.

What’s behind the numbers? There are many reasons that someone might find themselves living on someone else’s couch or on the street — losing a job, mental illness, addiction, medical bills, the vagaries of federal and state funding, domestic violence. But experts say the state’s high cost of housing is not only the most obvious but also the most important factor. 

California lawmakers have blamed the Trump administration for delaying the rollout of new funding and for reducing the efficacy of the country’s low-income housing program. But housing is still primarily a state and local issue. If Trump wants to blame the state for its own homelessness crisis, he could justifiably point to California’s notoriously tight restrictions on where and how homes and shelters can be built, its elimination of state-funded redevelopment agencies and its shortage of construction workers.

The Legislature ran out the clock on this year’s session without passing significant legislation to tackle housing costs. And Critics have noted that the Newsom administration’s “Project Roomkey” program to house homeless people in vacant hotel rooms has been too modest to make much of a dent in the rising numbers of people in need.

But hypodermic needles flowing into the sea? Almost certainly not.

After the Environmental Protection Agency took aim at San Francisco, the U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris called for an investigation into whether the city and state were being “singled out” for political reasons. In May 2020, the agency’s inspector general announced that the office might look into it. Three months later, the Government Accountability Office, an independent watchdog agency, agreed to take up the case as well.

Learn more about homelessness in California here.

Auto-regulations: “Henry Ford would be very disappointed”!

The claim: 

California’s tough car emission standards have long stuck in the craw of Republicans and car manufacturers. In the fall of 2019, Trump kicked that decades-long conflict into overdrive by rescinding the federal waiver that California needs to implement those beefier rules. 

“Federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation,” said Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Andrew Wheeler in making the announcement.

Trump’s line: California’s regulations force manufacturers to produce cars that are more expensive and less safe. He has also argued that the state’s rules don’t even result in lower emissions because, by making new cars more expensive, they lead current drivers to hang on to their older, less fuel-efficient clunkers longer.

California disagrees and has sued over the new rule. Three times

The facts:

Even since the Clean Air Act was passed by Congress in 1970, California has gotten special permission to adopt its own, stronger rules as a way to combat the state’s infamous smog. Because California is such a massive market and because more than a dozen other states abide by the Sacramento standard, the policy has a discernible impact on national particulate and greenhouse gas emissions. It also drives the production decisions of auto manufacturers across the world.

Stuck between the two standards, Honda, Ford, Volkswagen and BMW cut a deal with California to voluntarily abide by a watered-down version of the state’s rules. General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and Hyundai sided with the Trump administration, eliciting some pushback from the Newsom administration.

Whether the Trump administration has the right to revoke the state’s waiver is an unsettled legal question. History may be on California’s side: For half a century, the federal government has never unilaterally revoked a waiver. Ultimately, the Supreme Court may decide.

As to the president’s contention that California’s higher standards make cars both less safe and more expensive, prolonging the road-life of older, dirtier cars resulting in higher emissions, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to back up either claim.

One analysis led by researchers at the University of Southern California, Yale and the National Bureau of Economic Research found the administration’s assessment was “at odds with basic economic theory and empirical studies.” That unfavorable view was shared by some within the Environmental Protection Agency itself. According to an internal agency presentation obtained by the Washington Post, agency officials warned that the administration’s vehicle emissions plan contained “a wide range of errors, use of outdated data, and unsupported assumptions.” 

Learn more about the tailpipe wars here.

Water: Save it from the ocean!

The claim: 

In a number of wildfire-related tweets, President Trump has claimed that the state is allowing too much water to be “diverted into the Pacific Ocean.” It’s a claim that predates his election and, in fact, any reference to wildfires. At a campaign rally in Fresno in 2016, he assailed state lawmakers who, he said, “are taking the water and shoving it out to sea.”

The facts:

Of the many factors that contribute to California’s worsening wildfire problem, a lack of water is not one of them. 

Instead, the president seems to be conflating two perennial California policy problems: fire and water. The latter relates to how water in this arid state should be shared between different regions and different interest groups. And here the president is taking a clear stand. 

For years, farmers in the Central Valley have clamored for the state to divert more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (which, yes, does eventually go to the Pacific Ocean) toward growers to the south. But the state limits those diversions in order to protect endangered species that pass through the delta and to prevent the incursion of ocean saltwater up the river. 

In October 2019, Trump took action, introducing new rules for two major federal water projects that will increase the amount of water shunted to the Valley. In February 2020, the president directed federal regulators to begin making those diversion. The old rules, Trump told a crowd in Bakersfield during a signing ceremony, “needlessly flushed millions and millions of gallons of fresh, beautiful clean water from up north, straight into the Pacific Ocean.” California sued and the case is still ongoing.

Voter fraud: It’s rampant!

The claim: 

President Trump has been conjuring the specter of voter fraud since the beginning of his presidency. Just three weeks after winning in 2016, he tweeted without evidence that he would have won the popular vote nationwide if the official count were to “deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He went on to highlight three states he lost: “Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California.”

That was not a short-term fixation for the president. And now that the COVID-19 pandemic has convinced many states to conduct as much of the election as possible through the mail system, the president’s rhetoric on the subject has ramped up.

From May 2020: 

The facts:

As has been reported ad nauseum, voter fraud is exceedingly rare. After the 2016 election in California, the Secretary of State’s office opened up 89 investigations in election-related complaints. As CalMatters reported at the time:

“56 are allegations of double voting, 16 are allegations of fraudulent voter registration and 1 is an alleged case of fraudulent voting. The rest allege wrongdoing by candidates, petition circulators and others who work in the elections arena – not by voters themselves.”

As to the president’s other assertions:

  • Ballots will only be sent to active and registered voters in California this election — not to “anyone living in the state.”
  • It would be all but impossible to successfully forge a ballot, given that county registrars had unique identifiers for each ballot sent out and so know which ones will come back.
  • Professionals may indeed tell “people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote.” That’s also called “getting out the vote” and it’s perfectly legal.

Learn more about California’s (mostly) vote-by-mail election here.

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...