Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday offered up a playbook for President Donald Trump’s follow-up visit to hurricane-ravaged Texas this weekend, hugging storm victims, directly offering words of encouragement, and dripping sweat as he helped clear debris.
Pence — who is always cautious about upstaging the president — literally followed in Trump’s footsteps, flying with his wife to Corpus Christi, Texas, two days after the president and first lady Melania Trump had flown there and received updates from officials on the response effort to Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall late last Friday.
But while Trump courted controversy by barely mentioning the victims and boasting about the crowds who greeted him, his No. 2 took a more classic approach to offering comfort in the wake of a widespread natural disaster.
Pence’s trip was no-frills and low key. There was no buzz over second lady Karen Pence’s footwear — she was photographed wearing black flats — or the vice president’s headwear — he didn’t wear a hat, let alone one being advertised on the Trump campaign website.
Unlike Trump, who claimed Wednesday to have witnessed “first hand the horror & devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey,” it was Pence who actually met with storm survivors and slipped on blue gloves to help remove branches from fallen trees outside a battered home in Rockport. And unlike the first lady, the second lady didn’t release a statement on the storm. She instead led a group in prayer.
But Pence also made sure to share the spotlight with Trump, who plans to return to Texas and to visit parts of Louisiana this weekend with Melania Trump.
“I called the president from Air Force Two this morning, and I asked him what he wanted me to tell you. And he just said: ‘Just tell them we love Texas,’” Pence, clad in blue jeans with brown boots and rolled-up sleeves, told a group of people assembled outside a partially destroyed church. “You’ve inspired the nation. You’ve inspired the nation by your resilience and by your courage, and we just came here to commend you and to encourage you and to assure you that we’ll be there.”
According to reporters who traveled with Trump to Texas, the president saw minimal damage — largely through the tinted windows of an SUV during the drive from the Corpus Christi airport to a nearby firehouse — and did not meet with any victims or directly acknowledge them in any of his public remarks.
Part of it, though, was by design. The White House wanted to avoid the areas hardest hit by the storm as recovery and rescue efforts were underway. Trump, however, may stop by Houston when he returns to Texas on Saturday.
“The specific cities and locations are being finalized. Hopefully we’ll have that information for you later today,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Thursday’s briefing. “I believe as of right now, tentatively, he plans to be in the Houston area of Texas and possibly Lake Charles, Louisiana, but again, you know, varying on conditions that may change a little bit. That’s a tentative plan at this point.”
Despite the optics of Pence’s less polarizing and more classically presidential visit, the vice president insisted he was sent by the president to show the administration’s commitment to helping Texas recover and rebuild.
He thanked a list of people, from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other officials to volunteers and the people of Texas who have helped their neighbors recover.
“We will stay with you until Rockport and all of southeast Texas come back,” Pence said after his wife led a prayer. “We’re here today. President Trump will be back in Texas with the first lady on Saturday. And we promise you we’re gonna stay with you every step until we bring southeast Texas back bigger and better than ever before.”
The crowd around Pence sang “God Bless America” as the vice president finished speaking and began interacting with the people on the ground.
Administration officials dismissed the notion that the deferential vice president was upstaging Trump.
“There’s a time gap here,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a former Texas governor, told reporters aboard Air Force Two when asked if Pence was overshadowing Trump. “The president went to the right place at the right time.”
Harvey has brought historic amounts of rainfall to some parts of Texas, particularly Houston, an area the White House said Trump avoided so as not to hinder the recovery efforts. The storm has already swamped parts of Texas with unprecedented flooding that has displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes. The death toll has risen to at least 39.
Perry told reporters that Trump wanted to visit the state sooner than he ultimately did but came on Tuesday “for obvious reasons.”
“He really wanted to be where there were citizens being affected. He was advised: the better place for you to go is Corpus Christi or San Antonio or Austin, where no search and rescue resources would be pulled away from what they’re doing,” Perry said. “That’s always been good advice. The president went to the right place.”
Trump’s trip drew criticism for some of his rhetoric — he said FEMA Administrator Brock Long had “become very famous on television over the last couple of days” and marveled at how Harvey sounds “innocent” but isn’t, and made no mention of any victims — and the rally-style response to a large crowd of supporters the president acknowledged by uttering in amazement, “What a crowd, what a turnout!”
Pence was on message throughout the duration of his trip, visually and verbally. He was photographed hugging a woman, embracing another and lugging debris. He will also take questions from reporters. Trump did neither on Tuesday.
But the VP refused to take any credit for the success of his stop, repeatedly relaying messages from and speaking on behalf of Trump.
“On behalf of the president, I wanna urge every American to do what Texans who themselves are oftentimes dealing with hardship in their own household and their own family are doing, and that is find a way to help,” Pence told reporters in Corpus Christi before flying back to Washington. “You can go online, you can donate resources or you can do like thousands of Americans are already doing and will be doing in the weeks and months ahead, and that is find a way to get here and be the hands and feet and compassion of the American people, to help these families help these communities rebuild.”
Trump, for his part, will do a mix of both. His reelection campaign encouraged supporters to donate to Harvey relief efforts when the president visited Texas on Tuesday, and the White House announced Thursday that Trump will make a $1 million personal donation to disaster relief efforts.
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