CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — It was a presidential trip to a deluged state where the president didn’t meet a single storm victim, see an inch of rain or get near a flooded street.
But the daylong visit, where President Donald Trump spent far more time in the air than on the ground, gave the optics-obsessed president some of the visuals he wanted, as he checked in on the government apparatus working on relief efforts and was buoyed by a roaring crowd of locals.
And it showed that the president, who often obsesses about crowd size and fame while speaking in hyperbolic superlatives, would not drop those traits even amid hurricane clean-up. He praised his FEMA administrator, Brock Long, for becoming “famous” during his frequent TV appearances, talked repeatedly about the historic nature of the storm and marveled at adoring Texas residents who greeted him on the side of a rural highway.
“What a crowd, what a turnout,” he said, wearing khakis and a storm jacket – an unusual look for him – while waving a Texas state flag to about 1,000 people gathered across a rural Texas highway.
The trip was a surreal presidential journey around the edge of a disaster zone where the waters are still rising. The body of a Houston police officer who drowned trying to get to work was recovered while Trump was on the ground, and thousands continued to pile into shelters across the state, displaced from their homes for months.
Officials predicted years of recovery and billions in damage, and rescue efforts in some areas were barely underway, meaning the death count could quickly rise.
Long, who has scored early high marks, seemed to acknowledge that it could be seen as distasteful to have a news conference touting successes while the final toll of Hurricane Harvey isn’t yet known.
“All eyes are on Houston, and so are mine. We’ve got a long time to go. We’re still in a life-saving, life-sustaining mission.” said FEMA administrator Brock Long.
Trump, aides said, was determined to make a visit early. He had even pushed to come before Tuesday, one adviser said, wanting to be on the ground as quickly as possible. From Washington, he began giving administration officials assignments and told his entire Cabinet “that everyone is focused on this,” one senior administration official said.
Advisers saw the storm as a way for Trump to show decisive leadership. While the famed germophobe has never shown a streak of being the consoler-in-chief, these people said the hurricane gives his government a chance to show competency – and him as the chief executive of the response.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said repeatedly that Trump’s administration has been in touch every single day, and the president himself had frequently called him to ask questions. On Air Force One, Abbott said Trump watched footage of the storm and was “heartbroken.” A different senior administration official said Trump had become obsessed with forecasts and with action, going so far as to give some staffers tasks unrelated to their daily jobs.
Administration officials said they didn’t want to get near Houston, afraid they would hamper recovery efforts with the enormous rigmarole of a presidential visit. Runways are often closed, hundreds of officers are put onto any stop – and roads are emptied for miles to allow the presidential motorcade to drive down the middle. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump may return to the area on Saturday.
The president instead landed in Corpus Christi under blue skies as big as home-state hero George Strait sang about. Protesters and fans lined the highways with signs varying from “We Love You Trump!” to “Impeach Little Hands!” – but nothing on the sunny interstate seemed amiss in the wake of the storm.
There were few interactions with people that hadn’t been screened, and the president spent far more time flying Tuesday – at least eight hours – than on the ground, where he spent about three hours. Reporters traveling with Trump saw little more than he did, often quickly whisked from rooms or away from survivors or volunteers.
He began in a rural firehouse where he spoke in front of large firetruck, a boat and six colorful charts plotting recovery efforts. Beeping sounds interrupted his otherwise uneventful 15-minute visit.
Walking in through a side door wearing a white cap with U.S.A in black letters, he praised Texas as a “special place” before clasping his hands, nodding and listening to others from the head of the Coast Guard to FEMA administrator Long.
Seeing a large crowd of supporters outside, he then stood on top of a firetruck, clasped a microphone and happily addressed his supporters to roaring applause. “We love You Trump!” the crowd yelled. “Texas for Trump!”
He then flew an hour to Austin, taking a zigzagged route due to turbulence on Air Force One. In the state capital, he stopped at a fading, drab emergency center to speak to volunteers who sat at their computers beneath charts tracking recovery efforts.
He was taken down several flights of stairs into the belly of the department’s large op center, which featured multiple LCD screens showing maps, aerial footage from the flood zone and meteorological projections. Volunteers were working at length on spreadsheets about rescue cots and rescues – and Trump greeted several of them afterwards, out of earshot of the assembled media.
His final stop was a conference room packed with more colored maps illustrating the storm’s impact. There, Abbott heaped praise on his “compassion,” and his administration promised Texans they could help while he led a conference room. Several, including Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson and Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon, gave an overview of what their departments could do.
In typical hyperbolic fashion, Trump continually heaped adjectives on the storm. Over and over, he said the country had never seen rain like this – or for so long – or so much damage.
“Probably there has never been anything so expensive in our country’s history, we’ve never done anything so historic in terms of damage and in terms of ferocity as what we’ve witnessed with Harvey,” Trump said. “It sounds like such an innocent name, Ben [Carson], right, but it’s not innocent.”
He lavished similar praise on recovery plans.
“They’re big ones,” he said of new medical centers opening up.
“It’s big business, not small business,” he told McMahon about those her agency would help.
Whether his administration will handle the storm well – and avoid the kind of damage that bedeviled George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina – remains unclear. But the president seemed to be stopping just short of declaring victory over Harvey.
“We won’t say congratulations until it’s over,” he said in Corpus Christi. “We’ll do that later.”
Powered by WPeMatico