USA Politics

Harvey tests Trump on leadership – and on policy

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Trump has done relatively well on optics so far, but faces criticism over his policies leading up to hurricane Harvey. Now he must secure the billions of dollars from Congress to fund recovery and rebuilding.

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Aug. 29. They received a briefing on tropical storm Harvey relief efforts before heading to Houston.
Carlos Barria/Reuters
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Donald Trump faces his first major test as president, as southeast Texas grapples with record rainfall and flooding.

He has earned qualified kudos for his response so far. He has expressed compassion, support for first responders and volunteers, and observations on national unity.

But he also faces heated criticism on policy.

Days before hurricane Harvey hit Texas, the president signed an executive order rolling back Obama-era flood standards for infrastructure projects. He also risks voter upset with efforts to roll back federal flood insurance. And some say his compassion for those affected by Harvey rings hollow given his lack of support for addressing climate change, which many see as exacerbating such major disasters.

Trump’s biggest test may lie ahead: Can he secure the billions of dollars needed from Congress to fund recovery and rebuilding post-hurricane Harvey in the months and years to come?

Before Harvey, now a tropical storm, Trump’s antagonistic relationship with leaders of his own party on Capitol Hill was already challenging his ability to fund the government, address the debt ceiling, and launch tax reform when Congress returns next month. Now he faces demands to fund flood recovery in a way that satisfies his party’s fiscal conservatives.

“Hurricane relief complicates an already overcrowded legislative schedule, and makes even more important his ability to work with Republicans in the House and Senate,” says Steven Schier, a presidential scholar at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “It may be the best that can happen is he gets out of the way.”

Lessons learned from Bush’s response to Katrina

In a telling sign, Trump’s legislative affairs director, Marc Short, accompanied him to Texas on Tuesday. Mr. Short and his team will be crucial players in the budget and debt-ceiling negotiations, and in addressing Harvey relief funds. Trump has threatened to allow a partial shutdown of the federal government if Congress does not include funding for a border wall in the budget. Funding for Harvey recovery, which Trump has promised, will make the math even trickier.

Even as he was already preparing for the legislative challenge awaiting him, it was clear Trump was also conscious of the optics. Ever since then-President George W. Bush was photographed inside Air Force One flying over a hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in 2005 – a photo op he later called a “huge mistake” – American presidents have avoided appearances during and after crises that could be deemed insensitive.

In visiting Texas on Tuesday, Trump’s goal was to engage with events but not interfere with rescue and relief. Presidential travel always entails massive security, including involvement of local law enforcement. He and his wife did not travel to Houston, but instead visited Corpus Christi, where Harvey made landfall last Friday, and the state capital, Austin, for briefings with state leaders.

Accompanying him were an entourage of Texas officials, including the state’s two senators and other members of its congressional delegation, and other White House staff.

Trump seemed mindful of Mr. Bush’s mistakes during Katrina when he made remarks at a hurricane briefing in Corpus Christi, thanking officials for their hard work but not suggesting the job was done.

“We don’t want to congratulate,” Trump said. “We'll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.”

Next weekend, Trump will return to Texas and also visit Louisiana, reinforcing his hands-on approach to the storm.

Why assessments of Trump’s performance vary

Assessments of how Trump has handled Harvey depend very much on expectations going in. Those who already dislike him will find little to like in his hurricane response.

For some, there’s nothing Trump can do to redeem himself in Harvey’s wake. His decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, his pullback from environmental regulation, and expressions of doubt about man-made climate change all point to a president unwilling to address the underlying causes of extreme weather events, they say.

“While Donald Trump claims that ‘protecting lives’ is his highest priority, it is his own policies that will make recovery from superstorms like Hurricane Harvey much worse,” the director of the environmental group 350.org, Mae Boeve, said in a statement.

Before and after Harvey made landfall, Trump mixed tweets on the storm with political messages – an endorsement of a new book by Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, an attack on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, and a boast about his electoral total in her state. Trump heads to the Show Me State on Wednesday to talk tax reform.

At a press conference Monday, Trump was unapologetic about the timing of his Aug. 25 pardon of the controversial former Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio. The pardon came on a Friday night – a typical time for politicians to release controversial information, as they assume fewer people will be paying attention. 

But Trump defended the move and denied criticism that he was trying to slip the pardon under the nation’s radar.

“A lot of people think it was the right thing to do,” Trump said. “And actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.”

Praise for new FEMA director

Disaster-management experts express concern about Trump’s effort to roll back flood mitigation.

“We know that spending money before a disaster is always more effective than spending it afterwards,” says Daniel Aldrich, director of the Security and Resilience Program at Northeastern University in Boston. “For every one dollar spent before a disaster, you save four to seven dollars after the disaster.”

But on one point there seems to be consensus: that Trump has put in place an effective Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director, Brock Long, who was confirmed by the Senate in June. Mr. Long brings to the table emergency management experience in both the public and private sectors.

Unlike former FEMA director Michael Brown, who had a background in horse-show judging and came to embody inept disaster management during hurricane Katrina, Long “was a good appointment,” says Mr. Aldrich.