Trump says to halt aid to California wildfire victims, but law says he can't

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump cannot withhold disaster relief once an emergency has been declared, federal statutes show, despite the Republican’s tweet on Wednesday that he had ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to cease helping victims of last year’s California wildfires.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump visits the charred wreckage of Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park with then Governor-elect Gavin Newsom (L), FEMA head Brock Long (R), Paradise Mayor Jody Jones (2nd R) and Governor Jerry Brown in Paradise, California, Nov. 17, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

At FEMA offices near the site of last year’s devastating Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 86 people, disaster victims continued to apply for government aid to pay bills, buy food and rebuild their businesses.

“FEMA is here and people are signing up and they’re getting relief right now,” James Gallagher, the Republican state assemblyman who represents the area, said in a telephone interview.

In his tweet, Trump returned to his oft-repeated - and disputed - theme that California had mismanaged its forests, over-regulating logging and other measures that would thin them out to make wildfires less intense.

“Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

It is not clear whether Trump was referring to money already approved which FEMA is distributing or to future funds.

Representatives of FEMA did not respond to requests for comment about the law or the president’s tweet on Wednesday, even though some were working despite the government shutdown.

The agency’s website, however, shows the text of federal laws governing emergencies.

A key statute, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, says that once a federal declaration of emergency or disaster has been made, the president “shall not ... delay or impede the rapid deployment, use and distribution of critical resources to victims of an emergency.”


Trump’s tweet early on Wednesday was a shock to Republican lawmakers in the state, who criticized Trump for politicizing disaster relief and pointed out that it was the federal government, not California, that had been doing less in recent years to manage its forests.

Trump’s tweet was part of an ongoing back-and-forth with the most populous U.S. state, which is overwhelmingly Democratic and has a new governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, who criticized Trump on his first day in office on Monday.

It also came a day after Newsom and the governors of Oregon and Washington signed a letter asking Trump to spend more to manage the federal government’s forests in the Western United States.

The fire that devastated Paradise hit one of the last remaining Republican bastions in the state, and Trump’s tweet came as a surprise to the party’s representatives.

“Californians in fire areas have lost everything,” said Marie Waldron, the state Assembly Republican Leader. “They should not be victimized again because of a political squabble.”

Moreover, Waldron said, the fire likely started in the Plumas National Forest, and not on state land. Federally owned lands make up 60 percent of California’s forests, she said, and at the state level, Democrats and Republicans last year passed a bipartisan plan to better manage its woodlands.

FEMA has so far made available about $50 million to help victims of the wildfires in Paradise as well as in other parts of the state with housing needs, according to the agency’s website. There was no indication the funds had been cut off.

Last year, the state asked Congress to appropriate an additional $9 billion in assistance, about half of it from FEMA. That request has been delayed as Congress deals with the funding disputes that have led to a partial shutdown of the federal government.

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and G Crosse