President Donald Trump arrives at Los Angeles International Airport to attend a fundraiser, Tuesday, September 17, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump arrives at Los Angeles International Airport to attend a fundraiser, Tuesday, September 17, 2019, in Los Angeles.
CNN —  

Imposing their will over states might be what all presidents do, but President Donald Trump specifically promised in his inaugural address to take power away from Washington and give it back to the people.

Instead, he’s trying to take power away from places full of people who don’t like him and give it to those who do.

Trump, who’s visiting California on a fundraising trip, announced Wednesday that he is revoking a special status the state gets under the Clean Air Act in an effort to nuke fuel economy standards set by Sacramento, creating a situation where the President of a party that has long built itself around a message of freeing states from the yoke of federal oversight is trying to impose his will and his policy on every state in the union.

California, as epicenter of the resistance, gets special attention from Trump, who also this week criticized the state for its homelessness problem. A month ago he blamed Hollywood for an epidemic of mass shootings. He refuses to utter the term “climate change,” but that issue has animated much of the state’s policies in recent years.

Trump has made clear he doesn’t care about climate and California has fought him every step of the way. This is the stuff lawsuits are made of. He pledged to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, a global deal to curb emissions, and has sought to increase fossil fuel output by fracking on public lands and drilling offshore – moves that have pushed the US to the forefront of global production. He’s greenlit new pipelines, and now he’s rolling back regulations meant to make cars and trucks more fuel efficient.

“We embrace federalism and the role of the states, but federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a speech Tuesday at the National Automobile Dealers Association, teasing the move against California’s fuel economy.

Certainly the Golden State will see them in court over this new fuel economy attack. The Clean Air Act mentions California by name and gives the state authority to set its own standards as long as they aren’t less stringent than federal ones. The Obama administration had granted California a waiver under the 1967 Clean Air Act after the Bush administration had rejected it. Now the Trump administration wants to cancel it altogether. The law specifically grants California the ability to set its own standard because it had been a leader in dealing with its unique air pollution issues.

“California won’t ever wait for permission from Washington to protect the health and safety of children and families,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom in a statement. “We will fight this latest attempt and defend our clean car standards.”

He was more blunt on Twitter.

“Today’s actions represent another act in Donald Trump’s political theater. A failed attempt to assert power. A continuation of a political vendetta against CA and our progress. Bad news for him – we will prevail. See you in court.”

That’s important. Trump’s efforts to remake the courts have been his greatest success as President. He’s picked fights with judges he regards as too liberal since even before he was elected, and lately he’s made clear that the drive to replace judges with ideologically sympathetic jurists – from Justice Brett Kavanaugh on down to federal district courts – is a key reason for conservatives to reelect him. Liberals newly inflamed by allegations that continue to swirl around Kavanaugh have taken the exact opposite tack.

But the fuel standards issue also lets him take aim at liberal priorities.

Trump’s argument is that fuel-efficient cars aren’t safe, a statement that isn’t supported by the facts. In a series of tweets, he argued that cars will get safer (presumably because they’ll be bigger), but also cheaper because they won’t have to be as efficient. And because they’re cheaper, he said, more people would buy new cars.

Here’s how Trump put it:

“The Trump Administration is revoking California’s Federal Waiver on emissions in order to produce far less expensive cars for the consumer, while at the same time making the cars substantially SAFER. This will lead to more production because of this pricing and safety………. advantage, and also due to the fact that older, highly polluting cars, will be replaced by new, extremely environmentally friendly cars. There will be very little difference in emissions between the California Standard and the new U.S. Standard, but the cars will be……..far safer and much less expensive. Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business.

The words he didn’t mention were “climate change,” which even his EPA says will cost lives.

Not only does Trump not want the federal government to do anything about climate change – something he doesn’t believe exists – but he’s going to fight to keep anybody else from doing anything about it either.

The transportation sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gases emitted by the United States, and tailpipe emissions from passenger vehicles account for more than half of its emissions.

When the Trump administration made clear it had zero interest in lowering US carbon emissions, California stepped into the void, making the state’s government the country’s leader on addressing climate change.

Trump’s administration has worked to scrap fuel economy standards set by the Obama administration that would have mandated car companies achieve a 54.5 miles-per-gallon average across their fleet by 2025. When Trump took office, some of the car companies tried to revisit that standard so they could continue to make the large cars many consumers crave in this time of relatively low gas prices. But California, with support from some car companies, enacted its own standard of 51 mpg by 2026. Other states have followed California’s lead. A number of automobile manufacturers – including Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW – volunteered to meet that goal, a move that has made them the subject of an antitrust inquiry by Trump’s Department of Justice.

It is not yet clear how much the Trump administration would relax the Obama-era requirement. Currently, EPA requires a rating of 37 mpg across a company’s fleet.

This is not the only subject on which Trump is at war with California and other mostly blue states. The Marquette professor Paul Nolette has created a database to track all the single and multistate lawsuits brought against the federal government in Trump’s and previous administrations.

While there was a distinct rise in lawsuits against Washington by states beginning in the Obama administration, that numbers have soared during Trump’s term. California is a party to 47 such lawsuits, according to Nolette’s data, and New York is a party to 51.

More than a quarter of the lawsuits have to do with the EPA. But they also concern funding for cities that provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, the President’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act, efforts to put a citizenship question in the US census. The list goes on, according to a tabulation by The Sacramento Bee.

The largest portion of the lawsuits (42%) are still pending in the court system. But Trump ultimately tends to lose them, according to Nolette’s data.

If nothing else, his move against California’s fuel economy standards will delay them until further notice, which in Trump’s mind might be the same as winning.