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Hurricane Harvey packs political perils for Trump

Hurricane Harvey is gaining steam as it barrels toward the Texas coast, bringing with it destructive winds of up to 130 mph, a deadly storm surge, epic flooding — and perhaps the first real test of Donald Trump as a crisis president.

The stakes are high for Trump and other elected leaders, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. It’s been nearly 12 years since a major hurricane — one with maximum sustained winds stronger than 110 mph — made landfall in the United States, much less a Category 4 Hurricane, something Harvey morphed in to Friday evening. It’s been nine years since Texas has seen a direct hit from a hurricane. And the storm could have a national impact, too: Much of Texas’ oil and gas production is likely to be disrupted, at least in the short term and perhaps longer.

In recognition of high stakes, the White House on Friday pushed the message that Trump is sharply focused on the threat Harvey poses, and that he plans to visit Texas early next week. But, according to the latest forecasts, the storm may not clear the area until the middle or later next week.

“This is right up President Trump’s alley,” Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, said at the White House briefing. “When we go in and brief him on preparations, he is focused on making sure that the American people in the storm’s path have what they need. His questions weren’t about issues or about large political consequences.”

White House officials emphasized that while Trump will be at Camp David this weekend, he will be in full communication with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Also, Vice President Mike Pence will stay back in Washington, to help with response to the storm.

Hurricanes making landfall have a way of dominating the news cycle. Even a president whose tweets typically send the media scrambling can be blown off cable news by live footage of reporters struggling to remain standing in tropical-storm-force wind gusts. And after the storm passes, all attention turns to rescue and recovery efforts.

Though forecasters had been warning for days that the system that struck the Caribbean last week could re-form and threaten Texas, Harvey’s rapid development took many by surprise. At dawn on Thursday, Harvey was barely a tropical storm, with winds of 45 mph.

By Friday evening the National Weather Service declared it a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained wind speeds of 130 mph. Forecasts suggest the storm will maintain that intensity or strengthen even more before it makes landfall along the middle Texas coast — just north of Corpus Christi — late Friday night or early Saturday morning.

“Storm turned Hurricane is getting much bigger and more powerful than projected,” Trump posted on Twitter on Friday evening, prior to the storm being upgraded by the National Weather Service from its projected strength as a Category 3 Hurricane to a Category 4.

He added: “Federal Government is on site and ready to respond. Be safe!”

The biggest threats: The storm surge that accompanies a tropical system along the coast, with its damaging winds and flooding rains. The National Hurricane Center is predicting “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding for large swaths of Texas and Louisiana” — even in areas that won’t see the strong winds near the storm’s center, like Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city. And those flooding rains could linger for four or five days, as Harvey stalls out near the coast.

Natural disasters can be opportunities for elected officials to shine, delivering resources and compassion to affected populations. Barack Obama may have clinched a second term when the remnants of Hurricane Sandy came ashore the week before Election Day in 2012, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who embraced Obama —figuratively and literally — rode a wave of post-Sandy goodwill to an easy reelection campaign the year after.

Trump understood this five years ago. “Hurricane is good luck for Obama again,” Trump tweeted on Oct. 30, 2012 — the day after the remnants of Sandy made landfall in New Jersey. “[H]e will buy the election by handing out billions of dollars.”

Hurricanes are more typically perilous events, however. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 damaged President George W. Bush’s political standing, which was already slipping as a result of the Iraq War. But many Louisianans also blamed the state’s Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, for the slow response to Katrina. After Katrina, Blanco was so unpopular in Louisiana that she didn’t even try to seek a second term as governor.

For now, elected officials from Trump down to the state and local levels want voters to know that they are working hard on the storm. On Thursday afternoon, Trump encouraged those in the storm’s path to plan ahead, posting a video on Twitter of his visit to FEMA headquarters earlier this month.

Late Friday morning, he tweeted that he was staying on top of the latest developments. “I have spoken w/ @GovAbbott of Texas and @LouisianaGov Edwards. Closely monitoring #HurricaneHarvey developments & here to assist as needed,” he wrote.

Abbott, a first-term governor with national aspirations, posted a photo of him talking with Trump on the phone Thursday, writing that the “heads of Homeland Security [and] FEMA” were also on the call. (Trump retweeted Abbott’s post.)

In a proactive move, Abbott on Friday asked Trump for a presidential disaster declaration, and Bossert said the president would move quickly in response to the request.

The head of Homeland Security is Elaine Duke, who is serving as acting secretary following John Kelly’s resignation late last month to become White House chief of staff. At Thursday’s White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked whether not having a permanent secretary hurts the administration’s ability to respond to Harvey.

Sanders countered, arguing Kelly’s six months on the job at DHS, in addition to his military experience, is an asset to Trump in the White House.

“I think that we are in great shape having Gen. Kelly sitting next to the president throughout this process,” said Sanders, who added that there was “probably no better chief of staff for the president during the hurricane season.”

While the permanent post at DHS is vacant after Kelly’s departure, Trump does have a full-time FEMA director in place: Brock Long worked at FEMA during the Bush administration, holding the positions of regional hurricane program manager and hurricane and evacuation liaison team leader, according to his official biography.

But for the people most affected by a storm, it is ultimately their state and local officials who come under the most scrutiny.

Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, has studied how Sandy affected New Jerseyans’ opinions of Christie. “With a lot of these instances with natural disasters, we actually see that elected officials can get penalized, rather than get a bump,” Koning said, noting that Christie bucked that trend, earning a “long, sustained boost.”

It might be a challenge for the soft-spoken Abbott to replicate what made Christie successful, however.

“I think it was the combination of that tough-guy attitude with his leadership — and how he just kind of made the state feel safe,” Koning said of Christie’s response to Sandy. “His scores in terms of leadership, effectiveness and trust just skyrocketed in the wake of Sandy.”

Other officials have gotten whacked after a storm raged through. Consider Blanco, the former Democratic governor in Louisiana. She carried high approval ratings into the 2005 hurricane season, when Katrina and Rita struck the state. But a year-and-a-half after Katrina, Blanco trailed then-Rep. Bobby Jindal — the man she had defeated in 2003 — in a public poll of the 2007 governor’s race by 22 percentage points.

When Blanco decided a few months later not to seek a second term, former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile, a Louisiana native, told The Washington Post, “Katrina just washed away all the good that Gov. Blanco has done for the state of Louisiana.”

Nationally, Katrina is remembered more for the public perception of the Bush administration’s sluggish response to the storm. Bush was mocked for congratulating his FEMA director — “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” — before the full destruction of the storm had become apparent. Rapper Kanye West told the nation on a telethon broadcast across multiple networks that Bush “does not care about black people.”

Bush’s approval ratings were already in decline in the summer of 2005, but Katrina may have accelerated that deterioration.

That’s why Republicans are concerned about Trump. While he did tweet about the storm later on Friday, his morning began with the president picking fights with Senate Republicans — including airing private conversations with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) about Corker’s pending decision about whether to seek a third term next year.

That earned a rebuke from one of Corker’s colleagues, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who replied directly on Twitter to one of Trump’s posts Friday morning.

“… [K]eep on top of hurricane Harvey,” Grassley wrote in his distinctive shorthand. “dont mke same mistake Pres Bush made w Katrina.”

Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.

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