• The Star Staff

What happened during Trump’s visit?

By Jill Cowan and Adam Nagourney

In California alone, more than 16,000 firefighters continued to battle blazes that have already killed at least two dozen people, torn through mountain towns still reeling from past fires, and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.

On Monday, President Donald Trump met with Gov. Gavin Newsom and a group of California officials in McClellan Park outside Sacramento. The California officials wore masks. The president did not.

“It’ll start getting cooler,” Trump said. “You just watch.”

Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, told Trump that he hoped the weather would, indeed, cool.

“I wish science agreed with you,” Crowfoot said.

“I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump responded.

Climate change is not a matter of debate among scientists, and while Newsom has acknowledged the state could better manage the state’s forests after a century of a damaging policy of total fire suppression, he has been vocal about the role of climate change in making wildfires increasingly destructive and dangerous.

He has called federal officials’ denial of climate change “BS” and exhorted anyone who doesn’t believe in it to come to California.

On Monday, though, the governor and members of his administration were polite.

“I think there’s an area of at least commonality on vegetation, forest management,” Newsom told Trump. “But please respect — and I know you do — the difference of opinion out here as it relates to this fundamental issue on the issue of climate change.”

The visit was, for better or worse, a political display. So I asked my colleague Adam Nagourney, who has covered politics for decades, to add some context to the interaction:

Q: So there were obviously some underlying political considerations at play Monday. What were they for the president and the governor?

A: Let’s take Newsom first. He is the governor of the state that has been at the vanguard of the resistance to President Trump from his first day in office. Newsom is well aware of how unpopular Trump is, but also how distressed many Californians are with Trump’s denial of climate change and needed to convey that sentiment in their meeting. He had two big complications.

The first was this: California, reeling from the fires and the economic devastation of the coronavirus, needs the help of the federal government and the president in getting millions of dollars in federal aid.

Trump has threatened repeatedly to cut off funding to the state and said it was at fault for the devastating wildfires. I asked Jerry Brown, who was Newsom’s predecessor and one of Trump’s biggest critics on the environment, whether he would tell the president of his criticism if he were still governor and greeting the president on his visit to California.

Brown said yes — but taking note of the billions of dollars California needs, said he’d probably wait a few days.

So we saw Newsom noting their difference on climate change and suggesting he respected the fact that there was a difference of opinion. It will be interesting to see how that’s going to play in the next few days.

Q: And the second complication?

A: Newsom was clearly mindful not to say something that could show up in a Trump campaign commercial or promotional video — which happened the last time the two men met and Newsom was effusive in his thanks of the president, remarks the president highlighted in a video at the Republican convention.

On one hand, it might have seemed that Newsom had been played a bit by the president — but on the other, this is a state in crisis, and it needs the help from Washington.

Q: What about Trump?

A: Well, let’s allow off the bat that Mr. Trump came here in the role of a president comforting a part of his country in distress, which is one of the things that presidents do. But this is a visit with definite political benefit to him. He is of course never going to win California, but appearing concerned and sympathetic could help him with moderate women suburban voters who have moved away from him and is one of the reasons he is struggling in polls. And the fact is that television images of presidents tending to national crises are almost always good in politics, especially during election seasons.

Q: Do you think climate change will become a bigger factor in the presidential election? It hasn’t been much of a focus so far.

That’s a terrific question, and the answer is — don’t hate me for this — time will tell. Joe Biden has been talking about the environment, pledging if elected to, for example, to reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the international Paris climate accord. Biden has a much more affirmative legislative history on the environment. But in this era of pandemic and social unrest there has not been an abundance of interest in this issue by voters and thus by the candidates. It certainly seems possible that these fires might change that at least a bit.

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