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The cronyism and conflicts behind Trump’s attack on California

San Francisco Chronicle

By Robert Weissman

Angered by California’s temerity first in voting for his opponent in 2016 and then in repeatedly going to court to challenge his illegal actions, President Trump and his administration have launched an all-out assault on California.

This attack surely is done out of personal pique. But like so much of what drives this administration, it delivers the goods for corporate cronies.

The Trump administration has threatened to withhold highway funds and monies to fight wildfires. It has sued California over its efforts to thwart Trump’s immigration crackdown. Not only is the administration illegally seeking to override California’s right to establish clean car standards, it is pursuing an antitrust investigation against the state’s deal with automakers to reduce emissions. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency even has claimed that the state’s large population of people living without homes are responsible for poor water quality, and the administration has threatened to intervene to ensure homelessness does not “destroy” Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But the “war on California” story should not obscure that the Trump administration is doing more than exacting revenge against a state and its 40 million people that he seems to view as an enemy. Two consistent themes define Trump’s attacks on California. One is much noted: his shameful effort to demonize immigrants. The other is an effort to hand over anything his corporate backers and allies want, from drilling rights to regulatory rollbacks and beyond.

The heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior are well positioned to carry out this corporate obsequiousness agenda. Both are former lobbyists for polluting corporations, and neither has any compunction about delivering on the worst fantasies of their former clients.

Nowhere is this blatant sellout to corporate interests more evident than the Department of the Interior’s proposal to award a permanent water supply contract to the Westlands Water District, the powerful California water agency. This proposal, which threatens endangered species, would siphon away water for huge San Joaquin Valley agribusiness, including industrial growers of almonds, pistachios and other crops.

The proposed contract would permanently grant the water district up to 1.15 million acre-feet of water a year from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, enough to supply 2 million California families for the same amount of time. That diversion of water will come at the expense of San Francisco Bay Area residents, who get fresh water from the same source, harm fisheries and threaten vulnerable wildlife. This would be a ludicrous misallocation of limited water supplies at any point in California’s history, but it is utterly unconscionable in light of the climate crisis.

Nonetheless, the decision becomes a lot more understandable when you examine the pervasive conflicts of interest in the Department of Interior.

Guess who worked as a lobbyist for Westlands until 2016? The current scandal-plagued secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt. Since 2011, Westlands has paid nearly $2.4 million to Bernhardt’s former firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, including more than $1.4 million while Bernhardt was employed as a lobbyist there, according to federal lobbying records.

Bernhardt continued to work for Westlands after being nominated to the second-highest job at the Interior Department. Agency documents have revealed that Bernhardt, as deputy secretary, held dozens of meetings on California water issues, even though he was purportedly barred by ethics rules from working on those issues for a year.

Days after Bernhardt’s confirmation as secretary, the Interior Department’s internal watchdog opened an investigation into him. And the National Archives, not normally a hub of federal investigative activity, is looking into whether Bernhardt was destroying official calendars to cover up meetings that violated ethics rules. The Interior Department has released several versions of Bernhardt’s schedule with many entries that are vague at best.

If anyone still has any illusions that Trump is working to “drain the swamp” or “take on elites,” here is definitive proof that it just isn’t so. A former lobbyist delivering the goods for his former clients is about as corrupt as it gets.

This isn’t the first time that Interior Department actions have benefited Bernhardt’s prior clients.

Earlier this fall, the Interior Department moved to weaken protections for the delta smelt, the nearly extinct finger-sized fish that lives in river water California agribusiness has long sought for irrigation. This move, a longstanding priority of Bernhardt and of conservative legal groups, reversed a draft scientific opinion reached by scientists during the Obama administration.

Trump’s “war on California,” it turns out, has its own war profiteers who are plundering and polluting the state. And the attacks on Californians aren’t just due to the petty insecurities of our thin-skinned and vengeful president; they reflect the deep corruption that is one of the defining features of the Trump administration.