SAN FRANCISCO — California’s Trump-defying auto emissions deal has gotten deep under the president’s skin — and Gov. Gavin Newsom is making the most of it.
Trump has been raging for weeks against the deal Newsom and four major car companies cut July 25, which enshrines tougher tailpipe emissions standards than the ones in a rollback proposed by the administration. Newsom, who has long courted a higher national profile, is reveling in Trump’s ire; he and other California leaders say it’s the latest evidence the nation’s largest state offers a viable alternative to Trumpism.
“This is checkmate,” Newsom told POLITICO Thursday. “This is showing the limits of the power of this administration.”
The deal “is bigger than [Trump’s] tweets and it’s bigger than his EPA. This is a very frustrating place for him to be,” Newsom added. “There’s a weakness that’s exposed, and that’s very raw for this president in particular.”
Indeed, for Trump, the fact that prominent manufacturers cut a deal with a state that fashions itself as a rival power center in Trump’s America has proved to be an irresistible irritant.
The president has been particularly focused on Newsom’s agreement in the days since a New York Times report detailed how the deal — hatched after negotiations between California officials and car executives — caught the administration flat-footed. The federal government had earlier rejected overtures from auto companies.
In a series of tweets Wednesday, Trump lashed out at the “politically correct Automobile Companies” and their “Foolish executives,” asserting that California “will squeeze” car companies to “a point of business ruin.”
“Henry Ford would be very disappointed if he saw his modern-day descendants wanting to build a much more expensive car, that is far less safe and doesn’t work as well, because execs don’t want to fight California regulators,” Trump tweeted, referring to Ford Motor Company, which was part of the deal.
For Newsom, who took office in January and regularly stokes a long-running feud with Trump, it’s been an opportunity to both trumpet California’s leadership on environmental issues and jab a finger in the president’s eye.
The California governor has responded in kind to Trump’s Twitter broadsides, saying Trump’s preferred standard would increase pollution and saying that Ford was actually showing itself to be an “iconic American company maintaining America’s leadership in the global economy.” Newsom said on Twitter that “governors, environmental groups, and automakers are on our side.”
Tellingly, his press team eagerly shared the New York Times article describing Trump as “enraged.”
Newsom denied that he takes pleasure in the back-and-forth, saying he would rather work with the administration than battle it. But he allowed that the opportunity to showcase California’s climate leadership “enlivens me.”
“This is resistance with results,” Newsom told POLITICO, adding that “the reason I think [Trump] is so frustrated is this is a complete repudiation of his climate policies.”
For a president who loves to boast of his business acumen, the auto side deal serves as a reminder of California’s economic clout; when America’s largest state strikes environmental and commercial standards, it has a wide-ranging impact. The four companies that embraced the initial deal account for nearly one-third of domestic automobile sales, and Newsom has said that more companies are considering coming on board — a growing front that undercuts Trump’s preferred framework.
California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, who was instrumental in forging the deal, said California was able to step in after the industry failed to find a willing partner in Washington.
“When they felt they could not get an ear in the White House, that they were not making any headway,” Nichols said, auto executives “became frustrated and began to look at the possibility of doing something different.”
Industry executives were also receptive because they recognized that California’s benchmarks are achievable, Nichols contended, given that “they have already unveiled and have been building vehicles that let them meet those standards.” She noted that carmakers see rising international demand for fuel-efficient models.
“As the global market becomes more important and as China increasingly adopts California standards, what we’ve done with our regulations has proven to be attractive to other jurisdictions that in the future represent a much bigger market for the companies,” Nichols said.
But the issue is also somewhat personal for California policymakers, who have spent decades trying to clear a smog-shrouded past with uniquely stringent air quality rules. Nichols said the state has in that time “established our credibility as regulators.”
While California officials have clashed with the Trump administration over a myriad of policies, the animosity has been particularly intense when it comes to the auto emissions issue.
When Washington first announced the rollback in 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown excoriated the “stupidity” of a “betrayal” that constituted an “assault on the health of Americans everywhere.”
“Wrong way to go, Donald,” Brown chided the president at a subsequent press event.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine