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How Donald Trump Became Counties' Best Friend and Biggest Ally

The administration is focusing on a level of government that past presidents have often neglected.

Couy Griffin came riding into town on a horse. Back in February, Griffin led a dozen “Cowboys for Trump” on a 170-mile ride from a farm in Cumberland, Md., to the White House, intending to show support for the president and present him with a hat. They didn’t make it past the gate, but President Trump got wind of the event -- they were featured on Fox & Friends -- and called up Griffin, who was already at the airport on his way home to New Mexico, to thank him.

Griffin, who serves on the Otero County, N.M., commission, had the presence of mind not just to flatter Trump, but to bring up policy concerns. Griffin told the president that his county is home to Lincoln National Forest, which he said was mismanaged and presented a severe fire hazard that one day could wipe out the entire neighboring village of Cloudcroft. Trump promised to look into the matter. It wasn’t lip service. Griffin soon found himself on a conference call with USDA and Forest Service officials. “Commissioner Griffin, I want to start out by saying you definitely have the ear of the president of the United States on this,” said Jim Hubbard, the agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service.

Not many county officials can bank on being able to draw the president’s attention to a parochial matter, but counties in general are finding greater success communicating their concerns to the White House than they have had for a long time, if ever. Top administration officials have consulted with counties about opioids and opportunity zones, disaster response and environmental management. “They’re not just talking to us -- we’ve seen real action on things we’ve been pushing for for years,” says Christian Leinbach, who chairs the county commission in Berks County, Pa. “We couldn’t even get our concerns heard through channels in the Obama administration.”


In 2017, Trump signed the Waters of the United States executive order flanked at left by Bryan Desloge, then NACo’s president, and other county leaders. (AP)

The White House has invited every county commissioner in the country to attend a series of 35 summits held at the Old Executive Office Building. All told, more than 2,000 have come. Each of the summits featured at least one cabinet secretary; half included Vice President Mike Pence. Trump himself spoke at the last one.

These weren’t grip-and-grin occasions where county commissioners took selfies or grabbed napkins embossed with the White House seal. At each event, the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs promised to guide them through the federal government as a whole, handing out names and contact information of individual officials who could help them out with problems or concerns, whether at EPA, HUD, the Army Corps of Engineers, or elsewhere. To many of these visiting politicians, it felt like concierge service. Handing out business cards may be no big deal, but county officials around the country say they consistently get quick responses -- and quite often results -- whenever they reach out to the administration. “It’s refreshing for us at a county level to see this level of responsiveness,” says Chris Villines, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties. 

The Trump White House is doing more than acting as a liaison between counties and federal departments. It has created a new competitive grant program that will provide $225 million for rural counties to repair and replace bridges. It’s proposed $340 million to clean up sewage that runs from Mexico into 25 border counties from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. The administration has invited county commissioners to participate formally in the rulemaking process for rewriting regulations, including federal oversight of waterways that some county officials complain burdens them with excessive red tape. “We’ve always had an open door at the White House with recent presidents,” says Matt Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties (NACo). “What is different about the Trump White House is they’re sustaining the outreach. They’re inviting any and all county commissioners to tap into the administration.” 


NACo’s Matt Chase (David Kidd)

It amounts to something of a winning streak for counties, traditionally described by academics as “the forgotten governments” of America. Last year, the Interior Department sent out a record $552.8 million to counties through the payments in lieu of taxes (PILTs) program. The 2018 law reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration included several grant programs that flow directly to counties, which are involved in a third of public airports. Thanks in large part to lobbying from counties, that law also contains a provision limiting the Federal Emergency Management Agency to a three-year window for conducting audits on disaster funds, ending the practice under which FEMA sometimes would “claw back” money from counties a decade after paying out grants. EPA’s brownfields program offers new liability protections to state and local governments. In December, Trump signed a five-year farm bill that includes increased assistance for rural counties and schools, allows counties to exclude prisoners from population caps on eligibility for rural development programs and gives them greater flexibility in using federal broadband funds.

Policies such as brownfield liability or PILTs aren’t going to make a lot of headlines. Day-to-day issues on which counties and the federal government interact can fly so low under the radar that they don’t command much attention even from policymakers in Washington, let alone the press. 

But most key state and federal programs have to be executed by counties when they get to the local level -- transportation, Medicaid, public health, mental health and services for children, youth and seniors among them. Counties own nearly half the roads in the country and are largely responsible for stormwater and sewage. Yet presidents and governors routinely have given them short shrift, treating them as places to dump their problems, rather than partners in devising solutions. No matter how often county officials parrot the line that they provide more services than cities do, even to city residents, they rarely have commanded the attention that cities and states are able to claim. Counties have traditionally been treated like red-headed stepchildren by federal officials. It’s always easier to deal with 50 states than 3,069 counties.

Counties still aren’t getting everything they might want from this administration. Trump has made it a crusade to cut back on Medicaid and Affordable Care Act spending; many of those dollars flow through counties. The president also sought deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), still better known as food stamps. Counties administer SNAP in just 10 states, but those states are home to nearly a third of the people who receive the benefit. Trump’s budgets have called for eliminating Community Development Block Grants, a rare source of flexible federal funding for localities. 

But to the extent counties are looking for relief from federal regulations and unfunded mandates, their desires align with the larger goals of an administration looking to slice through the federal rulebook. “We’ve listened to state and local leaders where they think there’s not smart regulation that’s hampering opportunity and growth,” says Doug Hoelscher, who directs the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. “We don’t always give ‘yes’ answers, but I think we give answers on a lot more things than prior administrations.”


Doug Hoelscher, director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs (Getty)

Every administration takes a different approach to federalism. Although George W. Bush had been governor of Texas and selected several governors as cabinet secretaries, his Office of Intergovernmental Affairs functioned as a command center, giving states and localities their marching orders. Barack Obama, the first president elected from a big city in nearly a century, quickly scored points among state and local officials with a more open approach. Under Obama, HUD, EPA and Transportation at least talked publicly about knitting together programs on the local level in a more collaborative way. 

But the primary conduit for Obama policies was the nation’s cohort of big-city mayors. While past presidents tended to do business with states, to the extent they cared about other levels of government at all, Obama worked directly with mayors on a variety of programs he couldn’t get through Congress, including minimum wage increases, paid sick leave requirements, early childhood education and community policing. 

It made sense for Obama to find common cause with mayors. For half a century and more, big cities have been dominated politically by liberal Democrats. Counties have been different. Hillary Clinton ran extremely well in 2016 in the biggest ones, carrying 88 of the 100 most populous counties, but that largely was the extent of her success. All told, she carried fewer than 500 counties, while Trump won more than 2,500. He took two-thirds of the vote in rural counties and small towns. Paying close, ongoing attention to friendly counties may be rare for a president, but it makes perfect political sense for Trump. “We typically think of the president as the leader of the whole nation, but presidents also act like members of Congress do,” says Michael Sances, a political scientist at the University of Memphis. “They try to do things for their own base to shore up their reelection prospects.”

The mere act of talking to county officials is a way of keeping Trump’s bond with supporters from rural and small-town areas who complain about being ignored by Washington. “Having that reputation is something that’s noticed back home, outside the beltway,” says Hoelscher, the White House intergovernmental affairs director. “It’s not the biggest news above the fold, but usually with these initiatives it’s local news that these local leaders are coming to the White House.”

The administration isn’t devoting its downward attention exclusively to counties. During his first two years in office, the president met with governors in person 65 percent more often than Ronald Reagan had at the same point in his term. His office is also launching a series of summits for state legislators, similar to those organized for county commissioners. 

For county officials, however, after long neglect in Washington, a White House invitation is so unusual and unexpected that they sometimes think it must be a prank. Amy Galey, a commissioner from Alamance County, N.C., reported her email to her county’s IT department, convinced it was an attempt at hacking. 

But the communications keep coming. When Hurricane Michael was bearing down on the Atlantic Coast last October, the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs called county officials even before the storm landed, making sure they had access to the federal contacts and resources they’d need. They keep following up after disaster strikes. “Our lead here from FEMA is in constant contact with us, almost on a daily basis, sending us fact sheets about what needs to be done, what eligible moneys are available, the process you should use,” says Mary Ann Borgeson, a commissioner in Douglas County, Neb.


Douglas County, Neb., commissioner and incoming NACo President Mary Ann Borgeson (David Kidd)

There have been complaints that when counties in red states such as Nebraska get in trouble, they are given A-plus treatment, but when solidly Democratic California counties suffer historic wildfires, the president criticizes them for bad forest management. Trump’s 2017 tax-cut package eliminated deductions for personal losses from wildfires and earthquakes -- twin calamities in California -- but maintained the tax break for victims of hurricanes in the predominantly Republican Southeast. In June, Congress approved a $19 billion disaster relief package intended to provide help primarily to victims of hurricanes and flooding.

The county customer service ethic promoted by the White House has started permeating down to various federal agencies. Judd Freed is the director of emergency management for Ramsey County, Minn., which includes St. Paul. He notes that there are plenty of apps on his phone that are great at telling him the weather where his brother lives, but his department relies on moment-to-moment information from the National Weather Service regarding local conditions practically on a block-by-block basis. “Under the Obama administration, we did have pretty good access to them,” Freed says. “Under the Trump administration, they have made an outstanding effort to remain accessible to us.”

It’s less than likely the average voter will ever know that the administration went to bat for her county on sharing weather data or ending FEMA clawbacks. But voters will hear about bridges being built, or possibly that their public works department is saving money thanks to environmental deregulation. “The focus of the national media is on the acrimony and the disruptions going on in Washington, D.C.,” says San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox. “The White House certainly understands that counties have a lot of responsibilities. So far, we’ve seen some pretty substantive things being addressed.”

The county courthouse gang may not be the machine bosses they once were, but having local officials talk up the president can’t hurt in the places Trump relies on most for votes. Even during the 2016 campaign, Trump’s people were unusually alert to the value of doing outreach with NACo and counties. “The goal here might be to sway Republicans who weren’t totally sold on Trump in 2016, showing he can be pragmatic,” says Sances, the Memphis professor. “If they hear from county officials that, despite the tweets, he’s doing real things to help us here, that explicit messaging will convince some people on the fence.”

Trump has won over some reluctant county officials individually.  A few Republican commissioners who’ve attended the White House summits have admitted to reporters that they backed other candidates in the primaries in 2016, but have since come to believe that Trump has their interests at heart. “I don’t agree with everything the Trump administration has to say -- especially President Trump,” says Leinbach, the commissioner in Berks County, Pa., “but I’ve got to tell you his actions speak very loud.” 

Griffin, the “cowboy commissioner” from New Mexico, goes a lot further. Initially, he dismissed Trump as “a New York Yankee real estate tycoon who we know is not one of us.” Now he believes Trump will “go down as the greatest president that we’ve ever had.”  

Despite the access he’s gotten to decisionmakers in the Forest Service and USDA, though, Griffin still hasn’t gotten what he wants from them in terms of cleaning up the national forest. He’s confident that Trump will make it right. The president, after all, has already invited him to return to the White House, telling Griffin there are 20 acres on the South Lawn where he can ride his horses when he comes back to deliver his hat.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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