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Calif. Attorney General Becerra talks Trump, Constitution

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Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., arrives to speak at a news conference with other House Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 11, 2016, to discuss how Donald Trump’s rhetoric echoes the long-standing policy positions of House Republicans. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Andrew Harnik/AP
Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., arrives to speak at a news conference with other House Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 11, 2016, to discuss how Donald Trump’s rhetoric echoes the long-standing policy positions of House Republicans. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The new attorney general is hopeful about the relationship between the Trump administration and the Golden State — but he's also prepared to defend state interests.

President Trump's positions on issues such as immigration, the environment and legalization of marijuana have put him at odds with Golden State legislators. 

In an interview with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Channel in February, Trump said he's willing to do what it takes to make California fall in line.

But even the threat of lost funding hasn't stopped California legislators from signaling their resistance to policies that conflict with state laws. 

The resistor-in-chief is state Attorney General Xavier Becerra. 

Governor Jerry Brown named the 12-term Southern California congressman to fill the spot left vacant by now-Senator Kamala Harris. 

Becerra discussed a variety of issues Monday with A Martinez. 


President Trump signaled last week that he's open to finding a bipartisan compromise on immigration. Many undocumented people are now living in fear, and a number of California cities have stepped up efforts to help them. You've vowed to fight Trump's immigration policies. What kinds of legal challenges can we expect from your office?

A, we will do everything we can to protect people's rights within the state of California. The way that we're able to help most on the issue of immigration is by defending people's constitutional rights — because we have to recognize, immigration law, as broken as it is, is a federal matter. Therefore, federal law preempts any actions by the state.  So, I have to make sure that when I try to defend individuals, I am relying on what our state law allows us to do and what the U.S. Constitution requires me to do. 

Let me ask you about the original travel ban which was put on hold by the courts. The legal challenge to it was led by attorneys general from Washington state and New York state. But it was something that could have a big impact in California. Why weren't you out in the lead on that?

There were several states that were out in the lead. That one particular state filed the case doesn't mean that the other states weren't working with that particular state.

Before I even assumed office as attorney general, I'd been in communication with several of the attorneys general across the country who were also very concerned about the direction the new Trump administration might take. I look at it this way: There was a time when California had to do everything first, and it is a burden. It takes a lot of money. It drains, taxes your resources if you're constantly the one that's always taking the lead. Where we need to, we will.

We're not going to let anyone undermine our rights. But if Virginia or Washington state or New York or Massachusetts or Illinois wants to help us out, I believe in a team effort.    

But it can be argued that California would be most impacted by these things. Can you see the optics of not being seen as leading the charge? 

If people are concerned about optics, I get it, but that's not a game I'm interested in playing. I will tell you this: take a look at the results.

People throughout the country were able to avoid having to suffer the consequences of a Muslim travel ban and that's because a number of states came forward and took action. To me, what matters are results, not optics.

Some California Republicans have criticized Democrats in the state for focusing too much on President Trump and not enough on issues at home. As Trump continues to introduce policy changes, how certain are you that Democrats can respond to what he's doing and also remain focused on the needs of Californians? 

We will defend the rights, the privileges, the opportunities that have made California a place where people want to live. But I will tell you this: my first month as attorney general, I spent most of my time principally meeting with folks in law enforcement. Our sheriffs, our police chiefs, our rank-and-file law enforcement officers, because I know that job one for any attorney general as the chief law enforcement officer for the state, is to work closely with our law enforcement authorities. So, I'm not going to take my eye off the ball.

I'm going to do the things — the bread-and-butter issues that are most in the responsibility of the attorney general. But at the same time, I'm not going to lower California's guard when it comes to being a forward-leaning state. If someone wants to come at us and look to undermine our successes, then I'll be ready to defend that as well from whatever the external force. 

You're California's attorney general, but you're setting up an office in D.C. Is this indicative at all of the amount of time you plan to spend responding to decisions out of the White House? 

Regardless of who would have been the next president, I would have urged the governor to allow me to establish a presence in Washington, D.C.— simply because, after 20 years of working in Washington, D.C., I know how important it is to maintain those relationships and that network because we do work with the federal government. And we do rely on the federal government to succeed in so many different ways. I would have established a presence anyhow. It's a natural course for me to want to be as involved as possible as the attorney general for the state of California in Washington, D.C.'s affairs. 

Click on the blue bar above to listen to the entire interview.

(Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.)

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