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Trump raises stakes in fight with California by threatening to pull highway funds

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The Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to withhold federal highway funds from California in the latest skirmish between the Trump administration and the Golden State.

On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler sent a letter to California's Air Resource Board warning that it could face serious consequences if the state did not rescind 130 state air quality plans that have been backlogged.

The move comes on the heels of President Donald Trump's statement last week that the EPA is investigating possible water quality violations by the city of San Francisco and the administration's move to rescind California's waiver allowing it to set higher auto emissions standards than the federal government.

"California has failed to carry out its most basic responsibilities under the Clean Air Act, and as a result, millions of Californians live in areas that do not meet our nation's air quality standards," Wheeler said in a statement.

In Wheeler's letter, he says that California has the "worst air quality in the United States, with 82 nonattainment areas and 34 million people living in the areas that do not meet National Air Quality Standards -- more than twice as many people as any other state in the country."

California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom blasted the latest administration action, calling it a "brazen political stunt."

"The White House has no interest in helping California comply with the Clean Air Act to improve the health and well-being of Californians. This letter is a threat of pure retaliation," Newsom said in a statement Tuesday.

These environmental policy fights between California and the Trump administration are part of a bigger political fight, according to CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein.

"President Trump is governing as a wartime president," Brownstein said. "Only that the war is against blue America. He is using the power of the federal government to try to constrain and even punish blue states and blue cities that are not part of his political coalition."

Newsom appears to be positioning himself as a proud leader in the fight against the climate crisis. Last week after the EPA announced the end of California's waiver that allowed the state to set its own tailpipe emissions standards, Newsom told reporters, "Let me quote Pericles, who said, 'We do not imitate. For we are a model to others.'"

"We have the moral authority -- and that is something missing in this White House," the governor added.

Brownstein said Newsom "is always balancing between the undeniable appeal of fighting with Trump," calling it "good politics in California," but noting that "there are a lot of ways the federal government can make life difficult for a state."

State implementation plans are regulations that parts of states use to reduce air pollution in areas that don't already meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards. These standards were established under the Clean Air Act and are updated periodically.

California has the biggest share of unapproved backlogged air quality plans, with 130 out of 350 total, EPA officials said. On a call with reporters arranged by EPA about the issue on the condition officials are not quoted by name, a senior EPA official did not name any of the other states with high backlogs.

"We believe that states across the country should withdraw inactive state implementation plans that date back in some places years or decades and in many cases have fundamental approvability issues," a senior EPA official said on the call. "So, we will be communicating with states across the country on this front. California is a unique situation."

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