President Donald Trump and top emergency officials visiting Texas on Tuesday appeared eager to not repeat the federal government’s mistakes with Hurricane Katrina, even as the president offered up his traditional swagger, telling the FEMA chief that he has become “very famous on television” and that “we won’t say congratulations” to each other — yet.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump landed in hurricane-ravaged Texas on Tuesday afternoon, directly confronting the biggest natural disaster of his presidency so far.
In a packed day, the president, who arrived wearing a white USA baseball cap, was briefed on Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in Corpus Christi alongside Gov. Greg Abbott, FEMA Administrator Brock Long, Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Cabinet members and state and U.S. lawmakers, before heading to Austin.
But Trump did not plan on taking a helicopter ride over Houston, which has been the hardest hit by flooding — an apparent attempt to avoid the optics snafu committed by George W. Bush, who said it was a “huge mistake” to have images taken of him flying over New Orleans after Katrina.
The president also sidestepped a repeat of Bush’s gaffe in which he declared that then-FEMA administrator Michael Brown was doing a “heck of a job,” though he still heaped praise on state leaders and federal officials.
“We won’t say congratulations. We don’t wanna do that,” Trump cautioned. “We don’t wanna congratulate. We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished, but you have been terrific.”
Long more directly addressed the mistakes that occurred in the wake of Katrina, which first made landfall in neighboring Louisiana exactly 12 years ago.
“We’re very aware of the issues at the convention center, but let me be clear: This is not the Superdome,” Long said, referencing the massive dome that sheltered thousands of people driven from their homes by Katrina.
Still, Trump made no secret of his desire to be seen as leading a successful disaster response effort, which he focused on heavily, while making scant reference to the thousands of victims who have been displaced by Harvey and the residents who have died during the storm.
“I can tell you that my folks are telling me how great your representatives have been in working together. It’s a real team, and we want to do it better than ever before,” Trump told the group of officials gathered around a table inside a firehouse in Annaville. “We wanna be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as this is the way to do it.”
Trump described Harvey as a storm “of epic proportion,” adding that “nobody has ever seen anything like this.” He called it an honor to work Abbott and thanked the governor for his leadership.
In an off-the-cuff remark, he noted that Long “really has become very famous on television over the last couple of days” given his public role as the face of the federal government’s disaster response.
Speaking in Austin later Tuesday after touring an emergency operations center, Trump claimed in his trademark hyperbole that no one has ever seen so much water or damage that will take so long to rebuild. He lamented the long-term damage, which he labeled a “costly proposition,” and quipped that Harvey isn’t as innocent as its name would suggest.
“Probably there’s never been anything so expensive in our country’s history,” Trump said. “There’s never been anything so historic in terms of damage and in terms of ferocity, is what we’ve witnessed with Harvey. Sounds like such an innocent name, right? But it’s not innocent. It’s not innocent.”
Trump did not head to the most heavily damaged areas of Texas, such as Houston, which is coping with additional rainfall. But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he plans to return to Texas on Saturday and wants to make sure he doesn’t interfere in areas still being hit by the storm.
“The president wants to be very cautious about making sure that any activity doesn’t disrupt any of the recovery efforts that are still ongoing, which is the reason for the locations we are going [to] today,” Sanders told reporters on the way to Texas. “As of right now, I don’t know that we will be able to get to some of the really damaged areas.”
“A big part of what today will be about,” she continued, “is the coordination between local, state and federal officials. That will lay the groundwork for the recovery efforts that are going to be going on for quite some time.”
Harvey made landfall late Friday as a Category 4 storm, and at least 10 people have died since it began tearing through Texas, displacing thousands. More than 30 inches of rain has swamped parts of Houston, and more is expected to fall Tuesday, potentially reaching 50 inches.
The National Weather Service has warned that heavy rainfall from the now-tropical storm is “producing catastrophic and life-threatening flooding” in large parts of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana.
But the president and first lady have been anxious to get to Texas. “Leaving now for Texas!” Trump announced shortly after 8 a.m.
Trump has also repeatedly touted the success of how local, state and federal officials are handling Harvey, a storm the commander in chief has described in recent days as “epic,” “historic,” “record-setting,” “unprecedented” and “the biggest ever.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who did interviews with two Texas radio stations on Tuesday morning, framed Trump’s eagerness in the context of the president being “a leader that is absolutely committed to making sure things are happening the way they’re supposed to be happening.”
“And so the president wanted to get there, not only to show solidarity with the families that are suffering in this storm, but to make sure that all the federal agencies engaged are doing everything that can be done to rescue people and lay a foundation for full recovery,” Pence, who plans to visit the state later this week with second lady Karen Pence, told San Antonio radio station WOAI on Tuesday morning.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a native Texan, said the state is doing a “remarkable job” responding to “an extraordinarily difficult situation of historic proportions.”
“As you know, the president is on his way down today,” Tillerson said on Tuesday ahead of a meeting with his German counterpart, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. “I think he has plans to go back a second time, I think, indicating the seriousness of the situation, but also the commitment of the federal government to provide all the assets that the state of Texas needs to respond to what’s going to be a very, very, very long rebuilding process.”
It was initially unclear what tone the president would strike when he spoke after receiving additional details on the devastation that has rocked the state he won by nearly 10 percentage points last year. His campaign solicited donations for national disaster relief funds, including the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and United Way.
Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign “joins President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump in offering prayers and support for the victims of Hurricane Harvey and all those affected by this unprecedented natural disaster,” Tuesday’s email to supporters says. “The campaign wants to encourage all Americans to unite in this tragic moment as a nation to help our fellow Americans in need.”
Trump himself offered his thoughts and prayers on Monday to those impacted by Harvey. He predicted the road to recovery will be “long and difficult” but stressed that the federal government is ready and willing to respond although safety and security of Texans is “the single most important thing.”
He also assured reporters that Congress will quickly fund Harvey relief efforts and defended his late-Friday pardon of controversial former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, news that emerged as Harvey was making landfall.
“Well, a lot of people think it was the right thing to do,” Trump said at Monday’s news conference. “And actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.”
He followed that up Tuesday by admiring a crowd of supporters outside the firehouse in Annaville
“What a crowd,” he said, using a microphone and an amplifier to speak to the gathering of roughly 1,000 people from the steps of a ladder. “What a turnout.”
“This is historic, it’s epic, what happened. But you know what, it happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything,” Trump added. He then held up and waved the Texas flag.
Louis Nelson contributed to this report.
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