President Donald Trump has deployed his knack for marketing as Hurricane Harvey has ravaged Texas, calling the storm “epic,” “historic” and the “biggest ever.”
“Even experts have said they’ve never seen one like this!” Trump declared on Twitter.
But Trump’s showmanship is about to collide with the devastation on the ground as he heads to Texas on Tuesday, and while natural disasters usually call for a certain presidential demeanor, Trump’s response so far has been distinctly his own.
“It’s the biggest ever. They’re saying it’s the biggest ever. It’s historic. It’s like Texas. It’s really like Texas, if you think about it. But it is a historic amount of water,” Trump said on Monday afternoon, sitting beside Finnish President Sauli Niinistö during his visit to the White House.
And what, in the end, will follow the devastation?
“We will come out stronger and — believe me — we will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before,” Trump declared at a news conference with Niinistö shortly after. “The rebuilding will begin and in the end it will be something very special.”
The havoc wrought by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, where it has flooded Houston’s streets and already left at least eight dead, marks the first major natural disaster of Trump’s presidency. Trump has been diligent on Twitter, promoting his meetings with emergency officials, and has quickly signed disaster declarations for Texas and parts of Louisiana. Vice President Mike Pence was dispatched on Monday for a round of Texas radio hits in which he promoted Trump’s response.
“The president wants to be there and make sure the families and all of those affected and our first responders know that we are with you,” said Pence, who added that Trump has been “continuously updated” and “fully engaged.”
For Trump — who on the campaign trail once declared, “I have the best words” — the language of marketing and branding on which he built his career is not about to be shunned in the presidency. And even while he has pledged quick financial assistance from the federal government, he has appeared unable to stop himself from marveling at the strength and size of the storm.
“Nobody’s ever seen anything like it,” Trump said Monday. “I’ve heard the words ‘epic,’ I’ve heard ‘historic.’”
The comments echoed some of Trump’s weekend tweets.
“Wow – Now experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500 year flood! We have an all out effort going, and going well!” he wrote at one point.
“HISTORIC rainfall in Houston, and all over Texas. Floods are unprecedented, and more rain coming. Spirit of the people is incredible.Thanks!” he added later.
Whether Trump can stick to a more traditional script during his visit on Tuesday is an open question. The stakes are high and the politics charged — the political punishment George W. Bush took for his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina looms large in the approach to Harvey, which made landfall Friday evening as a Category 4 storm and is continuing to dump feet of water into Texas.
Trump is expected to avoid Houston on Tuesday, which continues to be hit particularly hard by the flooding that has already driven thousands of residents into shelters.
“The most important thing is this is not about yourself or how your administration is doing. It is to boost the morale and help the people on the ground who, one, are suffering and, two, are rescuing. Those are the two groups,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary under George W. Bush.
“The biggest risk is that President Trump goes down there and talks about himself,” he said. “If he talks about himself, talks about his victory margin in Texas and makes it anything other than a thank you and praise visit — I don’t even want to think about it because it would be so gauche.”
Rick Tyler, a former communications director for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, said Trump’s language so far about the storm lends credence to the idea that he struggles to publicly empathize with those who are struggling.
But he also said it may not matter for the president. “Like anything else with Trump, it’s unpredictable, sometimes he can perform and do OK,” Tyler said. “Many times expectations for him are so low he can often exceed them.”
Trump has struggled in the past with matching his tone to the setting. In the wake of a massacre at an Orlando nightclub in 2016 that was inspired by ISIS, Trump tweeted “thanks for the congrats” in reference to his warnings about terrorism. And in a July speech that was supposed to be about celebrating the Boy Scouts of America, Trump diverged to campaign themes and winding anecdotes. That same week he appeared to encourage police officers to rough up suspects in an address to law enforcement — the White House later said he was joking.
Even on Monday, he was unapologetic about timing the controversial announcement of his pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio to the storm’s arrival on Friday night.
“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,” Trump said during the news conference.
All of that presents a certain risk for Trump on Tuesday. Critics, though, have been quick to praise Trump when he sticks to a script, which he did at points during Monday’s remarks.
“Tragic times such as these bring out the best in America’s character — strength, charity and resilience,” he declared at the news conference, reading from prepared remarks. “We see neighbor helping neighbor, friend helping friend and stranger helping stranger. You see that all over.”
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