President Donald Trump has already faced down North Korea over a missile launch and congressional Republicans bickering over an Obamacare repeal.
Now comes his first big snow test.
A major late-winter storm bearing down on Washington and the wider region forced Trump on Monday to shift course from his top legislative priority on health care, to hold briefings on the threatening weather forecast.
Dealing with inclement weather is often associated with local mayors and governors, but presidents can find themselves in the political crosshairs if they poorly manage the federal response. President George W. Bush’s second term took a big hit over Hurricane Katrina, while President Barack Obama got a big boost from the timing of Superstorm Sandy just days before his 2012 re-election.
Of course, Obama also famously upset his newly adopted hometown just days after his 2009 inauguration when he bemoaned his daughter’s school being closed for the weather. “Because of what? Some ice?… We’re going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town,” Obama said.
For Trump, an oncoming storm that could bring upwards of a foot of snow — or, this being Washington, D.C., nothing at all — presents him with his first big opportunity to showcase his disaster management skills. If the Office of Personnel Management shutters the government before a noticeable amount of snow has fallen, he could be accused of panicking. Act too late and the Washington region could be in for a major traffic snarl.
On Monday, Trump started jumping into action. He met with his homeland security adviser and the acting FEMA administrator to hear about the federal government’s storm preparations and he directed his inter-government affairs staff to maintain contact with the governors and mayors preparing for the storm, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters during his Monday daily briefing.
“He has directed his acting FEMA administrator to lean forward and be prepared to help states should they require federal assistance,” Spicer added.
Trump echoed Spicer’s comments later Monday afternoon in remarks at the start of a meeting with his Cabinet, assuring reporters that the government is in “very good shape” and ready to respond.
“FEMA and the federal government are ready to assist,” Trump said. “They are literally waiting by the phones and ready to go. Everyone should listen to their state and local officials, who will be providing regular storm updates.”
The president added that he hopes the storm will turn out to be less severe than predicted.
“The entire northeast, it seems, is under a very severe winter storm warning, so let’s hope it’s not going to be as bad as some people are predicting,” Trump said. “Usually it isn’t.”
There’s already been one casualty from the winter storm — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s scheduled Tuesday visit with Trump at the White House. The meeting has been postponed until Friday.
Trump’s government has also started to move. An OPM spokesman said the office has been monitoring the snow forecast since last week in coordination with the National Weather Service. On Monday, OPM reposted a video presentation explaining the process for dismissing or shuttering the government in the event of inclement weather.
Such a decision won’t be made until late Monday or early Tuesday morning — 4 a.m. at the latest — based on discussions with more than 200 partners across the region, from governors and mayors to local schools, airports and public transit, the officials explained.
“We’ll make it as early as we can the night before if we can, but it really depends on the particulars of each storm,” Dean Hunter, the director of OPM’s facilities, security and emergency management, said in the video.
Some of Trump’s critics are already bracing for Trump to mangle something with the storm, possibly through his Twitter feed.
“I’m never going to rule out Donald Trump making a controversy about something that doesn’t need to be,” said Michael Czin, a former spokesman for Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Democratic National Committee.
How Trump’s government even handles the snow could be the source of controversy. Back in 2015, Trump told the Boston Globe he was no fan of using salt to prepare for storms and even explained why he had banned it across his company because it was “devastating” to steel, concrete and asphalt.
“Whenever I see snow, I see cities pouring salt all over the city,” Trump said in the wide-ranging 2015 interview. “It’s like hiring Rosie O’Donnell on The View – short term pleasure but long term disaster.”
“It corrodes everything,” Trump added. “One of the reasons our infrastructure is so bad is they use salt on the roads. … I’ve forbidden salt at all of my properties. I have many long driveways. I won’t let them use salt.”
The White House and General Services Administration did not respond to a request for comment on whether the Trump Organization’s snow policy had made its way to Trump’s federal government. As of Monday early evening, there were no signs of salt on the secure grounds near the West Wing and press room.
At the National Park Service, spokesman Ethan Alpern told POLITICO in an email that the parks in the Washington D.C. region were pre-treated ahead of the storm. “Salt is one of several types of materials we use to treat the roads, but that depends on the condition of each road,” he said.
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