NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s feud with his hometown is threatening to exact real pain on New York City.
After a year of mostly verbal sparring between New York City officials and the president — punctuated by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s public boycott of a White House meeting this week — the Trump administration’s plans to scale back infrastructure plans and social spending, an immigration crackdown and even the tax reform law are poised to hit New York where it hurts.
And while New York leaders like de Blasio benefit from taking aim at Trump, who is deeply unpopular in ethnically diverse New York City, the adversarial relationship also leaves the city in something of an awkward spot. The liberal de Blasio, for one, hasn’t met with Trump — who has called him “probably the worst mayor in the history of NYC” — since he was inaugurated.
De Blasio’s move this week drew cheers among many liberals, but some see a risk.
De Blasio’s stance “can only infuriate a person who could help the city,” says George Arzt, a longtime Democratic consultant and former press secretary to Democratic Mayor Ed Koch, who maintained a good relationship with President Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s. “And even though this is a blue state and the city is ultra-blue, I think you have to walk a fine line in making a political stand."
Trump’s hostility toward so-called sanctuary cities like New York plays to the Trump base, and there aren’t many New Yorkers who would disagree with de Blasio’s stance on immigration. But the toxic relationship between Queens-born Trump and the city’s Democratic leaders has become more than just symbolic in recent months: de Blasio is de Blasio is trying to cobble together a new budget, and it's not yet clear how the city will guard against expected cuts from Washington and broader economic headwinds. Last year, the city's budget did not reflect the threat of impending budget cuts — a practice that's become common in de Blasio's administration.
Meanwhile, the region’s planners are contemplating the possibility that a desperately needed rail tunnel under the Hudson will have to wait until Trump leaves office.
New York City relies on federal funding for everything from hospital disaster preparedness and school aid, to Medicaid, Social Security and homeland security; the city received approximately $8 billion in federal funding grants in the last fiscal year. And New York budget watchdogs worry that the city’s finances are in an increasing precarious position under the Trump administration — and wonder why de Blasio continues to spend freely when the nation is due for a recession and facing repercussions from the new tax reform law, which hits New York’s high earners with new limits on the tax deduction for state and local taxes.
“We are very dependent,” said Carol Kellermann, president of the non-partisan Citizens Budget Commission. “[We] have been saying for a while, you’ve got to get prepared and put away more reserves, and spend less. ... You don’t adjust for a rainy day on the rainy day.”
The expansion of the Second Avenue subway is at risk under Trump’s budget-cutting plans, and there’s arguably no place where New York City needs federal help more desperately than on Gateway — the region’s plan to build a new cross-Hudson rail tunnel and repair the existing one, which is now falling apart. Should it fail before a new one gets built, New Jersey commuters and Amtrak will be unable to access Penn Station, and the region (if not the country) will face serious economic consequences.
Planners say the roughly $13 billion tunnel project can’t happen without federal support, and in recent weeks, there have been increasing signs that adequate support won’t be forthcoming from the Trump administration.
De Blasio hasn’t spoken much about Gateway, even though his city’s economy hangs in the balance. The tunnel may ultimately burrow into his city, but it’s not technically under his aegis. And in a call Monday with other U.S. mayors, de Blasio reportedly wondered if it was worth his time to meet with Trump, given his prior infrastructure meetings with the administration and his resulting sense that Trump aides aren’t trustworthy. It’s a narrative de Blasio disputes.
“He expected a real meeting with a real back and forth, yes,” said his spokesman Eric Phillips. “He didn’t not expect the President to treat the nation’s mayors as pawns in his charade.”
“Look at the reports from the meeting (there’s a video),” Philips adds, in a defense of de Blasio’s decision not to attend. “It was a fake meeting with no Q & A and no actual discussion. The President spoke at mayors for 10 minutes and left.”
But City Hall says it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ renewed threat this week to punish cities that refuse to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities that were the breaking point for the mayor. What’s at risk: federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants, which totaled approximately $275 million in 2016 to state and local governments.
“I will NOT be attending today’s meeting at the White House after @realDonaldTrump’s Department of Justice decided to renew their racist assault on our immigrant communities,” de Blasio tweeted. “It doesn’t make us safer and it violates America’s core values.”
Trump shot back that Democratic mayors who skipped the meeting had put the needs of immigrants above "law abiding Americans."
Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, at the City University of New York, notes the dilemma for de Blasio.
“It may sound crazy, but during the '60s, when Lyndon Johnson was doing Great Society stuff, including a lot of infrastructure, and doing the war in Vietnam, the mayors of big cities who were opposed to the war in Vietnam kept on meeting with Lyndon Johnson,” he said.
They were willing to, in Sherrill’s words, “take what you can get.”
But that argument assumes that Trump is willing to give anything back to the city that made him, and without which the country would be demonstrably poorer. It also assumes that the notoriously thin-skinned president will be able to see past New York City’s resounding rejection of Trump in the general election. The Trump family’s economic interests in New York City, which are not insubstantial, haven’t softened his approach toward the city. And he has spent little time in New York City since taking office, staying instead at his country club in New Jersey.
Immigration advocates aren’t convinced that it’s worth de Blasio’s time to even try.
Desperate for immigration reform and a deal to protect young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers — including 30,000 who live in New York City — many saw the mayor’s snub of Trump as a welcome gesture, and a signal that the city would not back away from its support for immigrants, even in the face of funding cuts and threats of legal action.
Peter Markowitz, director at the Law Immigration Justice Clinic at the Cardozo Law School, said advocates are “pessimistic” about the possibility of reaching a positive agreement during any conversation with Trump, but he said officials should be at least willing to engage in conversation.
“The president seems motivated to use immigration to divide communities and rile his base by activating kind of the worst instincts in people,” Markowitz said. “That said, that doesn't mean that in all circumstances we shouldn't try to have a conversation. I am pessimistic but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try.”
Javier Valdés, co-executive Director of Make the Road New York, a leading immigrant rights organization in the city, couldn't speak to the wisdom of meeting with Trump about infrastructure, but said he certainly wouldn’t advise the mayor to bother meeting with Trump about the issue closest to his heart. He doesn’t mince words.
“There’s no way to constructively engage with the white supremacist in the Oval Office,” Valdés argued, “who continues to show his intention to attack immigrant communities and our city, on this issue.”