As rescuers continued their exhausting and heartbreaking work in southeastern Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the rain continued to fall and a reservoir near Houston spilled over, President Trump grabbed a microphone to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside a firehouse near Corpus Christi and were chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”
‘Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special. . . . What a crowd. What a turnout.”
Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.
He has talked favorably about the higher television ratings that come with hurricane coverage, predicted that he will soon be congratulating himself and used 16 exclamation points in 22 often breathless tweets about the storm. But as of late Tuesday afternoon, the president had yet to mention those killed, call on other Americans to help or directly encourage donations to relief organizations.
“It is a difficult balancing act for presidents,” said Matt Latimer, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “You want to project confidence that things will get better, but at the same time you want to display empathy for people who have lost everything. . . . The president has a knack for the first one, but so far he hasn’t displayed a lot of skill at displaying empathy. And that’s a problem.”
Since Harvey slammed into the Texas coast Friday night, the president has made his awe of the powerful storm clear and used almost admiring terms to describe it — as if he were describing a sporting match or an action movie instead of a natural disaster.
“125 MPH winds!” the president tweeted Friday as the hurricane made landfall.
“Record setting rainfall,” he noted the next day, along with telling his FEMA director, “The world is watching!”
“Wow — Now experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500 year flood!” he tweeted on Sunday, following tweets promoting a book written by a conservative sheriff and announcing a Wednesday trip to Missouri, a state that “I won by a lot in ’16.”
At a news conference Monday, Trump continued to gush over the storm. “I’ve heard the words, ‘epic.’ I’ve heard ‘historic.’ That’s what it is,” he said, adding that the hurricane will make Texas stronger and the rebuilding effort “will be something very special.”
By focusing on the historic epicness of the hurricane, Trump has repeatedly turned attention to his role in confronting the disaster — a message reinforced by comments and tweets praising members of his administration.
At least the president is being authentic, argued Barton Swaim, a former speechwriter for then-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) who is now the opinion editor at the Weekly Standard. And no matter what the president says, those opposed to Trump will interpret it in “the worst possible way,” Swaim said.
“I’ve always thought that these kinds of deals are a no-win situation for politicians,” he said. “There’s no good response. If you insert yourself, you look opportunistic. . . . If you don’t, you look aloof and disconnected.”
The mighty storm didn’t cut short the president’s weekend at Camp David in Maryland — or derail his plans to announce that he was pardoning Joe Arpaio, a former county sheriff in Arizona who was convicted this summer of ignoring a court order to stop racially profiling. Later, Trump said he wasn’t trying to bury the news on a Friday night but instead “assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally” because of coverage of the storm.
While Trump’s top aides gathered with Vice President Pence at the White House over the weekend, Trump videoconferenced in. On Saturday, he wore a white campaign hat. On Sunday, he opted for a red version. As of Tuesday evening, both hats — which feature “USA” on the front, “45” on a side and “Trump” in the back — were being sold on Trump’s campaign website, prompting ethics watchdogs to accuse the president of trying to profit off the crisis.
Trump sported one of the same hats again Tuesday as he ventured to Texas for a visit that some critics argue should have been delayed until the rain had stopped and the flooding had gone down. He was accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, who wore towering black stilettos and a green bomber jacket as she departed Washington but changed into bright-white sneakers and a black cap labeled “FLOTUS” before stepping off the plane in Texas. An aide carried two Louis Vuitton suitcases aboard for the day trip.
“Leaving now for Texas!” the president tweeted.
On the ground in Corpus Christi, Trump and his entourage traveled to a firehouse for a brief meeting with local and national officials, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and the state’s two senators, Republicans Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. He praised everyone for working together so well and referred to his FEMA director, Brock Long, as “a man who’s really become very famous on television over the last couple of days.”
“It’s a real team, and we want to do it better than ever before. We want to be looked at in five years and 10 years from now as this is the way to do it,” Trump said. “This was of epic proportions. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this. And I just want to say that working with the governor and his entire team has been an honor for us.”
He then thanked the governor and added: “And we won’t say congratulations. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to congratulate. We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.”
The president’s comments, which lasted mere minutes, angered many of those who served in President Barack Obama’s administration and could not imagine their former boss ever acting like this.
“It’s not a time for crowing about crowds,” said Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former deputy chief of staff of operations for Obama. “This weather event isn’t even over yet. They have no idea the damage that’s been incurred and how many people will need a place to live when this is over. It’s catastrophic, not epic.”
Before Trump traveled to Austin for another briefing, he addressed supporters gathered outside, climbing a ladder positioned between two emergency vehicles and behind a black SUV. With his wife at his side, he sounded as if he were addressing a political rally instead of a state struggling to start to recover — but it was a tone that matched the screaming crowd. Some there carried pro-Trump signs and flags.
“I will tell you, this is historic — it’s epic, what happened,” Trump told them. “But you know what? It happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything.”
Before he departed, he picked up a Texas flag and waved it slowly in the air.