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Trump to visit his nemesis California, the U.S. economic engine

March 12, 2018 12:51 pm

Donald Trump is headed to the heart of "the resistance" -- California, a state that remains the anchor of the U.S. economy even as it has become the forefront of opposition to his presidency.

For the first time since taking office nearly 14 months ago, the president will travel Tuesday to the nation's most populous state. Trump lost California by a two-to-one margin in 2016, worse than any modern Republican presidential nominee, and the state's political leaders have since lead the nation in challenging Trump's policies on immigration, health care and the environment.

The state's Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, suggested Trump visit a railway construction site during his trip instead of prototypes for a barrier along the Mexican border to keep immigrants out, saying the state's focus is "on building bridges, not walls."

Trump has responded in kind, with lawsuits, threats to cut off federal funding and by largely ignoring what would be the world's sixth-largest economy if California were its own country, one that has consistently outperformed the rest of the U.S. in recent years.

"Washington wants to abandon part of America based on politics," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a likely candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. "Just as I would expect a Democratic president to pay attention to the reddest parts of the country, I expect a Republican president to pay attention to the parts that didn't vote for him."

Trump will make the roughly five-hour flight to California and back for a visit that likely won't exceed 24 hours. He plans to headline a fundraiser in Los Angeles on Tuesday, then review eight prototypes for his promised Mexican border wall near San Diego on Wednesday.

He isn't expected to intersect with any of the many California Democrats he treats as political scapegoats, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or Rep. Maxine Waters, a black woman who has called for his impeachment, whom he ridiculed as having "very low IQ" at a campaign rally over the weekend.

No president since Franklin Roosevelt has waited so long since his inauguration to visit the nation's largest state, a fact not lost on California's leaders.

Brown sent a letter to the White House on Monday imploring Trump to make time in his trip to visit construction sites for the nation's first true high-speed rail line -- a project that Brown suggested fits squarely within Trump's promised infrastructure development plan.

"In California, we are focusing on building bridges, not walls," Brown wrote, sharing with the president the motto that he often uses to differentiate his policies from Trump's.

California's economy has outpaced the nation's since 2012, thanks to the technology industry and a resurgent real estate market. By many key measures -- personal income, high-wage jobs and home prices -- California has seen greater increases than the national average, said Chris Lafakis, director at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

"Its growth has been incredible," Lafakis said. "In just about every economic indicator that you look at, California is leading the national economy."

But the president has shown far more interest in California's immigration policies than in its economic development.

The Justice Department is suing the state for laws that block cities and employers from assisting federal agents seeking to deport undocumented immigrants. In February, Trump suggested he would pull immigration enforcement agents from the state altogether -- "you'd be inundated; you would see crime like you've never seen crime in this country," he said -- and declared in a tweet that he wouldn't build a section of border wall he said the state's leaders had requested until his entire proposed barrier is funded.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to Sacramento last week to announce the lawsuit, which challenges three California laws passed last year limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities. California's critics say its leaders have created a "sanctuary state" for undocumented immigrants.

"I can't sit by idly while the lawful authorities of federal officers are being blocked by a legislative action of politicians," Sessions said.

Brown responded that the administration was "basically going to war against the state of California, the engine of the American economy."

It's only the latest legal battle between California and the Trump administration.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who until last year represented downtown Los Angeles in the House for more than two decades, has filed 28 lawsuits against the Trump administration. He's fought every version of the administration's travel ban. He sued to block Trump from ending the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children from deportation. He's also sued to prevent construction of the border wall.

Additionally, there are Becerra suits and filings against the Trump administration's efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and to end or modify existing regulations governing the environment, education and commercial use of the Internet.

"We're doing what the Constitution envisions states to do and that is, we're providing for the general welfare and the public safety of our people and we're respecting completely the federal government's prerogatives," Becerra said in an interview.

The incumbent attorney general, who was appointed to his position by Brown, faces an election challenge by the state's insurance commissioner, Dave Jones, who has relentlessly criticized Trump's moves to erode Obamacare.

Democrats dominate California's politics. Brown is in his second consecutive term (and his fourth overall), Democrats lead the state's largest cities, and they hold a supermajority in the state Senate and are a seat short of one in the Assembly. Only 14 of California's 53 members in the House of Representatives are Republicans and several are seen as vulnerable in the 2018 midterm elections. Two of them, Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce, have both decided not to run for re-election.

In another sign of the GOP's weakness in California, the party was unable to recruit a candidate with statewide name recognition to run for Senator Dianne Feinstein's seat. Like Becerra, she faces a primary challenge from her own party this year.

Trump won 31.6 percent of the vote in California in 2016, under-performing 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in every county. The president remains unpopular. His approval rating among likely voters was 32 percent in a survey released in January by the Public Policy Institute of California.

That political climate is causing California's Democratic leaders to drive the state relentlessly leftward, Republicans say.

"This is what happens with the Democratic Party has zero fear of the Republican Party in a state," said Ron Nehring, a Republican strategist who ran for lieutenant governor in 2014 and was national spokesman for Senator Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign. "California is currently so uncompetitive for Republicans that there is no mechanism for Democrats to be careful or moderated."

The state is still useful to Republicans as a source of campaign cash. Tickets to Trump's fundraiser on Tuesday in Beverly Hills, on behalf of the Republican National Committee, start at $35,000 and run as high as $250,000.

"We know our job here is to export dollars to win the presidential election in other places," California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said in an interview.




Bloomberg's Romy Varghese contributed.