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What Happened During Trump’s California Visit? President and Newsom Talk About Fires and Climate Change

ImageGov. Gavin Newsom and President Trump during a briefing at Sacramento McClellan Airport on Monday.
Credit…Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Good morning.

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 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,” Mr. Trump said. “You just watch.”

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

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

[See maps of the fires and air quality.]

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

Climate change is not a matter of debate among scientists, and while Mr. 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 “B.S.” and exhorted anyone who doesn’t believe in it to come to California.

[Read about Joe Biden’s response to the president’s comments in California: “If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires?”]

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,” Mr. Newsom told Mr. 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:

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

Let’s take Mr. 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. Mr. Newsom is well aware of how unpopular Mr. Trump is, but also how distressed many Californians are with Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Newsom’s predecessor and one of Mr. 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.

[Read the full interview with Jerry Brown.]

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

So we saw Mr. 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.

And the second complication?

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

[Read about Mr. Newsom’s approval rating in the pandemic.]

What about Mr. Trump?

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.

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 Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the international Paris climate accord. Mr. 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.

(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it by email.)

Credit…Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Read more:

  • For prisoners across the West, the fires have compounded the threat of the coronavirus. [The New York Times]

  • Smoke from the wildfires has drifted so far that it caused a haze in Washington, D.C., and Canada. [The New York Times]

  • The Bobcat Fire was bearing down on the historic Mount Wilson Observatory on Monday. Firefighters were working to protect it. [Pasadena Star-News]

Credit…Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • A small glimmer of hope: California’s average positivity rate for the coronavirus over the last week was 3.5 percent, the lowest it’s been since the state started reporting the data in late March. [The Los Angeles Times]

Track coronavirus cases by California county. [The New York Times]

  • An error by Pacific Gas and Electric may help explain the first rolling blackouts in California in nearly two decades last month. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

  • Now that Microsoft has dropped out, ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, has chosen Oracle to be its U.S. technology partner. Regulators are reviewing the proposal. It’s been a surreal negotiation with big implications. [The New York Times]

Also: Meet the woman who was tasked with taking over TikTok at a critical, confusing time. She’s based in Los Angeles. [The New York Times]

  • Add to the 2020 dystopia files: PepsiCo is adding an entry to the “enhanced water beverage” category with a product called Driftwell, which contains an amino acid that studies suggest can improve sleep and reduce stress. So, the opposite of caffeine. [The New York Times]

  • We may have seen Martian orange skies on Earth, but scientists have been looking at possible signs of life in the atmosphere of Venus. [The New York Times]

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.


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