MCCLELLAN PARK, Calif. - President Donald Trump arrived in Northern California on Monday for a briefing on the deadly wildfires, an event held mostly in private and overshadowed by Trump's antagonism toward the state and the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Newsom did not meet Trump on the airfield when Air Force One landed shortly before 11 a.m. at McClellan Park, just outside Sacramento, as firefighters across California continue to battle wildfires that have killed at least 24 people in the last month.
Despite his ongoing political feud with Newsom, Trump told reporters that he and the Democratic governor have worked well together.
"We have a good relationship. We're obviously from different sides of the spectrum," Trump told reporters shortly before meeting with the governor.
Trump deflected questions about whether climate change was a driving force behind California's historic wildfires this year, saying instead that major fires can be attributed to what he described as a failure to properly manage the state's forests, including the need to cut more fire breaks.
As he did in 2018 after the deadly Camp fire devastated the Northern California mountain community of Paradise, Trump also said the state has to do a better job clearing dead trees from the forest floor.
"They explode," Trump said. "Also leaves. You have years of leaves, dried leaves on the ground. It just sets it up. It's really a fuel of a fire, so they have to do something about it."
A group of protesters holding anti-Trump signs and several dozen people carrying Trump 2020 signs and waving American flags gathered outside McClellan Airfield before the president's arrival.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and others accompanied Trump on the trip.
California's top emergency officials, including Wade Crowfoot, Newsom's secretary for natural resources, Thom Porter, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, were expected to brief the president and federal officials about the fires raging across California.
Newsom is expected to depart after the briefing and head to Butte County, which has been hit hard by the wildfires.
Trump's brief visit comes following criticism that he was too slow to acknowledge the blazes raging up and down the West Coast as he campaigns in the run-up to the November election.
In California, wildfires have burned more than 3.3 million acres this year - an area of land that the California Departement of Forestry and Fire Prevention says is larger than the state of Connecticut. More than 4,100 structures have been destroyed since lightning strikes first ignited a series of fires in mid-August.
Late last week, the president tweeted his support for firefighters and first responders and on Monday he is expected to award medals to members of the California National Guard who helped rescue dozens of stranded hikers and campers from the Creek fire in the Sierra Nevada.
The president's trip also marks another chapter in his complicated relationship with Newsom. The interaction between two leaders, who spoke on the phone about the fires last week, will be limited to a short briefing at McClellan Airfield with emergency officials who will detail the major fires burning across the state.
Though the president toured the destruction wrought by the 2018 Camp fire in the town of Paradise alongside. Gov.-elect Newsom and former Gov. Jerry Brown, Trump and Newsom did not plan to meet publicly Monday.
At a campaign rally shortly after the wildfires began last month, Trump again blamed state officials for the blazes, doubling down on his earlier criticism that California needs to clean up fallen leaves and other natural debris on forest floors. He also threatened to withhold federal funding, a warning he often issues on social media.
In response, Newsom has said that the federal government owns nearly 58% of California's 33 million acres of forestlands, compared with the 3% owned by the state. The remainder is owned by private landholders, local governments and others.
Newsom, a supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, has mocked Trump for his comments about cleaning up dead leaves and other flammable debris on the forest floors. The Democratic governor also criticized the president over allegations that Trump wanted to withhold disaster relief money for California's wildfires after the 2018 Camp fire because voters in the state opposed him politically.
"The president of the United States threatened the state of California, 40 million Americans who happen to live here in the state of California, to defund our efforts on wildfire suppression because he said we hadn't raked enough leaves. You can't make that up," Newsom said in August. "There's so much at stake in this election."
Despite Trump's threats and affinity for excoriating California, where he finished 4 million votes behind Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, his administration did not withhold the funding.
Despite heated rhetoric and occasional Twitter spats, the governor has noticeably refrained from publicly jabbing Trump on his response to the pandemic in California. For months, Newsom has said that the Trump administration has responded each time California has asked for assistance.
"There's not one phone call that I have made to the president where he hasn't quickly responded, and almost in every instance, he's responded favorably in terms of addressing the needs, the emergency needs of the state," Newsom said just a few weeks ago. "Over the course of at least a year and a half that I've been governor, as it relates to these wildfires, he may make statements publicly, but the working relationship privately has been a very effective one."
In late March, Newsom lauded Trump for dispatching the Navy hospital ship Mercy to the Port of Los Angeles to help free up capacity in Southern California hospitals for those stricken with COVID-19. He has also credited Trump for sending mobile military medical units.
Newsom again praised the president in April after the federal government sent California coronavirus testing supplies, saying "promise made, promise kept," a mainstay slogan for the Trump campaign. Newsom's comment was not well received by Democrats - and it quickly appeared in a Trump reelection video touting the president's response to the pandemic.
Still, Newsom has also emphasized California's position at the forefront of battling against the Trump administration's policies on the environment, immigration and health care. California has sued the Trump administration more than 100 times, often successfully, on a variety of issues, including more than two dozen challenges to policies proposed by the EPA, the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies responsible for setting energy and fuel-efficiency standards.
"We're involved in dozens and dozens of lawsuits against an administration that doesn't see eye to eye with us," Newsom said Friday. "Rather than lamenting about it, we'll continue to fight in the courts, will continue to win, as we are overwhelmingly against the rollbacks of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act."
Newsom took a shot at the Trump administration last week for failing to fight climate change, but he also praised the president at the same news conference for proactively declaring emergencies and approving federal grants for state and local governments to mitigate, manage and control fires.
Trump approved Newsom's request for a presidential major disaster declaration in California on Aug. 22 due to wildfires. The move, which came two days after Trump blamed the state for the fires at his presidential campaign rally, allows local and state governments to seek federal funds for emergency response and recovery efforts.
California and the U.S. Forest Service also reached an agreement late last month in which the federal government will match the state's goal of decreasing the fire risks on 500,000 acres of forest land per year by 2025.
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