Could A President Legally Withhold Federal Funds After A Hurricane

Trump has been a controversial president — to say the least — and he has forced us to reevaluate the legal realities of the country in which we live. For example, no one ever had to wonder whether or not a president should use national emergency powers to provide federal aid to states affected by natural disasters. But when California requested federal aid assistance because of its devastating wildfires, the Trump administration said “no” and didn’t bother to provide a reason for its decision.

But it didn’t take anyone long to figure it out. California was never going to vote for Trump in 2020, and his administration has long been at odds with the state over numerous policy practices from curbing carbon emissions by regulating car manufacturers to determining what is to be done with asylum seeking migrants who cross our borders.

This is likely the reason our website has received so many inquiries about what would happen if a president tried to deny assistance to a state affected by a different natural disaster: hurricanes.

The good news is this: political pressure exists, its power is strong, and that’s the reason why the Trump administration eventually reversed its decision and let the federal assistance flow to California. Then again, we were in the midst of an election — so who knows?

The bad news is this: the Trump administration has already denied federal assistance for hurricane damage. Trump denied the assistance to Maryland after tropical storm Isaias caused some damage there. 

Several members of the Maryland congressional delegation wrote to the Trump administration in an effort to ask him to overturn his own decision to withhold the aid. This delegation’s members included: Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, Congressmen Dutch Ruppersberger, John P. Sarbanes, Steny H. Hoyer, Kweisi Mfume, Andy Harris, Anthony G. Brown, David Trone, and Jamie Raskin.

The letter read: “On August 3 and 4, 2020, Tropical Storm Isaias impacted Maryland with wind gusts up to 72 mpg, spreading debris over roadways and across power lines, resulting in over 75,000 power outages and one fatality. The torrential rain — over nine inches in parts of Maryland — caused flooding which washed out roadways and bridges in multiple counties. Isaias spawned nearly a dozen tornadoes across the state, causing significant damage to public infrastructure and private property.”

It continued: “Given the massive impact that this flooding had on state and local resources in Maryland, we urge you to reconsider this denial, grant the appeal, and approve the provision of supplementary federal assistance, pursuant to the Stafford Act.”

State officials could sue a presidential administration if they believe there is evidence that the administration is denying federal assistance based on political beliefs, which is illegal and spelled out simply in the Constitution. The Take Care Clause of the Constitution says that a president must act on behalf of all Americans and not just his own voting block. Naturally, Trump has been sued for this exact reason several times during his one term in office.