Major policy shift in 280 characters: Trump tweets ‘no more’ FEMA money for California

While I agree “brevity is the soul of wit,” Twitter does not necessarily lend itself to Lord Polonius’ point in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet that less is more. Twitter very often obfuscates wit and leaves us with more questions than answers. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record MORE tweeted this morning that unless the state of California improves forest management and the wildland-urban interface, he has ordered FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to withhold federal funding. 

We do need better forest management. We cull wildlife herds. We encourage farmers and ranchers to manage soil. But we have this naïve belief that forests should be left to Mother Nature’s whim. That hands-off approach, particularly as we encroach into the urban wildland interface more and more, better forest management is essential to reducing uncontained wildfires and the destruction the fires bring to human life and property. 

So, what is the president saying?


One interpretation is that he wants California to do a better job of managing forests. I agree. But the federal government could also do a better job of managing forest on federal lands. It’s easy to criticize California while ignoring the mismanagement at the federal level. 

Another interpretation is that until California does a better job of managing forests (presumably by adopting better statutes, regulations and policies regarding forest management) he is cutting off all FEMA funding. He says he has “ordered FEMA to send no more money.”

No more money. That would be a disaster.

FEMA is sending disaster money to California for a plethora of reasons. Some money is sent to reimburse state and local governments for part of the costs of fighting the fires. Some money is sent to help rebuild public infrastructure destroyed during the fires. Some money is sent to individuals to help them rebuild their lives with temporary housing and individual assistance.

Surely the president is trying to convince California to adopt better forest management policies. But the tweet is open to interpretation. No more money from FEMA would have a far greater impact that just forest management. That is why announcing public policy in a tweet is bad politics and bad governance.

The president will be accused by his detractors of cutting off financial aid to individuals. But is he really? His supporters will claim that he is only cutting off money to the state until they adopt new rules and regulations. But is he really? 

By now we should be resigned to the president tweeting. His tweets are simultaneously fascinating, frustrating, entertaining, poignant and confusing. 

The president would be well served to use Twitter for political purposes. The zingers, the jabs, the announcements of items like meetings or briefings are great. But public policy announcements such as this make it difficult for those who are charged with carrying out administration policy. It detracts the men and women of FEMA from doing their jobs to assist state and local governments and individuals through federally-declared disasters. 

If you haven’t worked inside the government, you may think that detraction is trivial. But detractions like this require time, energy and effort to work with state and local governments. Those partnerships become strained and too much effort is then required to maintain and rebuild partnerships that are inherently important when responding to or recovering from a natural or manmade disaster.  

The individuals involved are already traumatized and are rebuilding their lives and businesses. Time and energy have to be spent reassuring them that promises made will be kept. 

Shakespeare didn’t have Twitter. If he had, Polonius might have said that “brevity is the soul of wit, unless you are using Twitter, in which case wit may die within 280 characters.” The president would be well served by using Twitter for politics and leaving public policy announcements to the cabinet departments and White House Communications Office.  

Michael D. Brown is the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and under secretary of Homeland Security for President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. He is the author of “Deadly Indifference – The Perfect [Political] Storm.” He hosts "Heckuva Show" heard on radio in 38 states from its flagship station, NewsRadio 850KOA, 850 AM and 94.1 FM. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelbrownusa.