Since 2005, there’s been one guiding principle on how presidents should address natural disasters: Don’t be George W. Bush. President Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina — which involved taking two days to return to Washington to monitor the storm, viewing the devastation from the window of Air Force One, and telling his unprepared FEMA director, “You’re doing a heck of a job” — dragged down his already low approval ratings, and remains a stain on his presidency.
As President Trump faces a similar crisis with Hurricane Harvey, he clearly has Bush’s mistakes on his mind. Just before the storm hit on Friday, Republican senator Chuck Grassley issued this warning, apparently concerned that the president had taken time to tweet out praise for his administration and an attack on a GOP lawmaker, but had said nothing about Harvey.
Hours later, Trump posted a string of tweets about the hurricane, saying he was in communication with the governors of Texas and Louisiana and would continue monitoring the storm from Camp David. On Saturday morning, he responded:
Not sending the message that your administration is insensitive to the suffering of thousands of Americans and ill-equipped to handle storm-response efforts is an extremely low bar, and some argue Trump already missed it when he announced he had pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio as Harvey was making landfall on Friday night.
“A lot of people think it was the right thing to do,” Trump said on Monday. “Actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they were normally.”
But with the storm still pummeling Texas and Louisiana, and the recovery expected to take years, Trump is still in a politically perilous spot. Avoiding epic disaster is one thing, but what would a good disaster response from Trump look like?
As Samantha Montano, who has a doctoral degree in emergency management, explained to Vox, many elements of good emergency management are not under the president’s direct control. Most disaster response is managed by state and local officials, with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator. In a bit of a surprise, the Trump administration has a FEMA director in place, Brock Long, and he’s both experienced and respected in his field. Trump fulfilled his most important official role, for now, when he granted Texas governor Gregg Abbott’s request for a disaster declaration on Friday, allowing federal funds to begin flowing to the affected areas.
The president can influence nationwide disaster preparedness, and while it’s a moot point for the victims of Harvey, Trump’s record in that area is concerning. In addition to his administration’s many efforts to ignore global warming and its effects, Trump’s budget proposal included steep cuts to FEMA and other disaster-preparedness programs. Earlier this month, he rolled back an Obama executive order requiring stricter building standards for federally funded infrastructure projects in flood-prone areas.
Right now, Trump seems focused on optics, and until the storm passes that’s pretty much all he can do. He’s been tweeting about Harvey frequently, though he’s focused on the storm’s destruction rather than discussing how Americans can help:
The big test will come on Tuesday, when Trump plans to visit Texas. His administration has not said where he’ll be, and while Governor Abbott said he won’t go to Houston, some have questioned whether it’s wise to divert resources for a presidential visit while the crisis is ongoing. Trump showed an eagerness to engage in the politics of natural disasters during the campaign, when he visited flood-ravaged southern Louisiana. Residents welcomed Trump, saying the disaster wasn’t receiving enough national attention. However, Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said Trump had given no advance notice of his visit, and he wanted Obama to hold off due to logistical challenges.
Vice-President Mike Pence said in a radio interview that Trump is anxious to tour Texas and “make sure the families and all of those affected and our first responders know that we are with you,” adding, “we’re there for the long haul with Texas through the recovery efforts, but now’s the time to focus on lifesaving efforts.”
Whether Trump can remain focused on Harvey’s victims tomorrow, and in the coming weeks, remains to be seen. Aside from the Arpaio pardon, Trump’s tweets in recent days have been interspersed with recommendations for books penned by his political allies, and new calls to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, even as Mexico offered to help with storm relief.
During a press conference on Monday, President Trump insisted that his threat to shut down the government next month if Congress does not provide funding for his border wall will not complicate efforts to secure a multi-billion-dollar aid package for Harvey relief.
“I think that you’re gonna see very rapid action from Congress, certainly from the president, and you’re gonna get your funding,” Trump said. “We expect to have requests on our desk fairly soon and we think that Congress will feel very much the way I feel in a very bipartisan way. That would be nice. But we think you’re going to have what you need and it’s going to go fast.”
It’s up to the Trump administration to come up with a disaster-relief request, like when President Obama asked for $60.4 billion in additional funding nine days after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The funding complicates the already hairy fall congressional schedule, but Politico reports it could help GOP leaders defuse Trump’s shutdown threat. If relief funds are attached to a bill to keep the government open beyond September 30, Trump could be forced to choose between securing money for Texas or vetoing the measure to fight for his border wall.
That could wind up being Trump’s “Katrina moment,” even if he manages to perform his role as “comforter in chief” perfectly on Tuesday.