Federal officials expressed confidence Friday as Hurricane Harvey grew to a Category 3 storm that President Donald Trump and his agency heads are thoroughly prepared to aid state and local governments, but critics remain skeptical that this White House is ready to cope with its first major natural disaster.
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“This is right up President Trump’s alley,” Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said at a press briefing Friday.
According to Bossert, Trump is actively engaged with state officials and is deeply concerned for the safety of Texas and Louisiana residents in Harvey’s path. He also praised the leadership in place at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.
“We couldn’t have a better team, to be honest,” he said.
Deputy FEMA Administrator David Grant told Sinclair Friday that Trump is doing exactly what the agency and Administrator Brock Long need.
“The role he’s already playing is empowering the FEMA administrator to do his job,” he said.
Grant said FEMA resources are pre-positioned outside the hit zone and the agency is prepared to mobilize and provide whatever support the state and local governments need.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also offered a vote of confidence in acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, who is filling in temporarily since Gen. John Kelly left the job to become Trump’s chief of staff.
“I think they’ve got the right people in place,” he said.
Much of what happens next is out of the White House’s hands and is dependent on the storm’s path and strength. According to political scientists, though, a president’s response to a natural disaster can become a defining moment for his term, particularly if it does not go well.
“This is going to be a full test of the Trump administration,” said Tom Whalen, a professor of social sciences at Boston University and author of “A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage.”
President Trump tweeted Friday that he has spoken to the governors of Texas and Louisiana and is monitoring the progress of the storm. The White House said Trump is planning to travel to Texas early next week in the wake of the storm.
A visit in the immediate aftermath is a dicey proposition that can easily give way to allegations of political opportunism or complaints that the president and his staff are getting in the way of relief efforts.
According to Gary Nordlinger, a political consultant and professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, this moment is “a thin tight rope” for an administration to walk, because the president cannot visit too soon or wait too long.
“If a president goes and visits the wreckage, it can be a distraction…yet if the president doesn’t go, it almost seems like he doesn’t care,” he said.
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Thomas Birkland, associate dean at North Carolina State University and author of “Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events,” said what Trump says and does in the days ahead may matter more than where he is.
“The danger isn’t in being there,” said Birkland, whose research focuses on the politics of natural disasters. “The danger is I think in setting the wrong tone.”
Trump received some criticism on Twitter on Friday morning for kicking off the day with a series of tweets praising himself with no mention of the storm or those affected by it. Hours later, he tweeted that he had spoken with the governors and posted a photo of himself receiving a briefing from homeland security and FEMA officials.
“I think what he does today has very little impact on this,” Nordlinger said. “People won’t really focus until the storm comes in.”
It may seem callous to focus on the political implications of an event that could cause widespread destruction, but experts say it is simply reality.
“Disasters are political events,” Birkland said. “There’s just no two ways about it.”
In the midst of his presidential campaign last August, Trump made a trip to Louisiana to visit flood victims and deliver donations. At the time, he mocked President Barack Obama for not being there, but the state’s governor had urged both of them to stay away.
“You hate to say it, but it really comes down to a political calculation,” Whalen said.
The optics of the president tweeting away about his greatness as thousands are fleeing flood zones are not wonderful, but practically, Birkland said there is not a ton that a president can do right now.
“The president’s role in a disaster is probably more rhetorical than it is managerial…. They’re not the guy who flies down and starts working the phones,” he said.
Ideally, state and local agencies will take the lead on emergency response and FEMA will provide support when requested. According to Birkland, many people hold the mistaken belief that “the federal government is the cavalry that rides in and solves the problem…. It exists to support state and local governments in their efforts, not to replace them.”
Beyond appointing a competent FEMA director and granting them the authority they need, the president’s responsibility is often just to provide moral support to victims and emergency workers.
“Consider him sort of the reassurer-in-chief…bucking their spirits up in a time of great need,” Whalen said.
Even if their direct role in emergency management is limited, presidents are often judged harshly on the government’s response to natural disasters. George W. Bush’s presidency never fully recovered from the political damage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Bush administration’s failings in Louisiana and Missouri after that storm involved both policy and public relations errors.
Mistakes were made in preparation and positioning of supplies, and FEMA was still feeling out its role in the bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 attacks. Bush’s choice of Michael Brown, a former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association with minimal experience in emergency management, to head FEMA also caused complications.
Bush’s praise of “Brownie” for doing “a heck of a job” while people were desperate for help in New Orleans became emblematic of the administration’s response to the storm.
“On a PR level, some people didn’t think the federal government was taking it seriously,” Birkland said.
A moment when the White House allowed photos to be taken of Bush surveying the damage from the window of Air Force One thousands of miles above, meant to make him look compassionate, only served to underscore his distance from the victims.
“It kind of fed into the narrative that he was a spoiled rich kid who lucked into the presidency and really did not care about common people on main street...and that he was something of a rube and incompetent,” Whalen said.
Bush’s father’s handling of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 hindered his reelection bid for similar reasons. The George H.W. Bush administration’s response was slow and disorganized, reinforcing voters’ concerns that he was too detached from domestic matters.
Whalen also pointed to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which President Calvin Coolidge initially treated as a local matter. The destruction sparked mass migration of African Americans to cities in the Midwest and West.
When Coolidge did mobilize the federal government to assist with flood relief, he put then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover in charge of the effort, a high-profile position that Hoover parlayed into victory in the 1928 election.
“Without that flood, we probably would not have heard of Herbert Hoover…,” Whalen said. “He made sure every newspaper in the country knew about his relief efforts during the flood.”
However, Hoover’s failure to keep promises he made to flood victims later became a drag on his administration, a cautionary tale for Trump if he does fly down after the storm.
Like the Bushes, Trump runs a risk of reaffirming negative narratives hanging over his White House if this goes poorly.
“I think it will underscore what critics have said about the Trump administration, that it’s a bunch of incompetents,” Whalen said.
A botched federal response would add fuel to criticisms of this administration over staffing and budgeting. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Hurricane Center currently lack permanent directors, and several positions involved in disaster response are only filled by officials serving in an acting capacity.
NOAA, the National Weather Service, and other agencies involved in planning, studying, and responding to extreme weather events are also due for significant budget cuts if Trump’s proposed federal budget is implemented.
“This could expose big-time what’s wrong with the Trump administration” if the lack of resources and staff hinder an effective reaction, Whalen said.
A strong and competent response to Harvey may give Trump’s dwindling favorability a boost, but Nordlinger said people expect the government to handle hurricanes well so they may not be that impressed.
“It’s hard to think of instances where a disaster response has a positive impact…. The downside risk is enormous,” he said.
The lesson Trump might take from the experiences of past presidents is that he is better off erring on the side of engagement than looking like he does not care.
“Voters will forgive honest mistakes,” Whalen said. “What they won’t forgive is disinterest and indifference.”
One piece of advice from Birkland, though: “Be prepared for a lot of criticism.”
Trump seems acutely aware of the political impact a hurricane can have and the scrutiny a president can face over it. In 2012, he sent a dozen tweets on President Obama and Superstorm Sandy, suggesting at times that giving out relief funds would help Obama or that scenes of chaos in the streets could benefit Mitt Romney.
“With long gas lines & total disarray from storm, the hurricane may yet be a negative for Obama,” he wrote on Nov. 2, 2012. Days after the election, he claimed, “Polls show that the hurricane had a huge positive effect for Obama on his win—Isn’t that ridiculous?”
As is often the case with Trump’s old tweets, there is even a warning to himself—this time, against hogging the spotlight.
“Interestingly, the hurricane may now be a disaster for Obama's reelection because of his grandstanding,” he wrote.