President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump are heading to storm-ravaged Texas on Tuesday as the commander in chief confronts the largest natural disaster of his presidency, even as he is dealing with the fallout from other self-produced controversies.
Trump is expected to sidestep Houston — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told “CBS This Morning” that Trump will avoid the area so as not to interrupt evacuations and emergency responses to the devastating flooding in that area.
That decision highlights the thin line between politicians showing their concern by visiting in the aftermath of a natural disaster and becoming a distraction given the resources required for a presidential visit. Former President George W. Bush acknowledged years later that it was a “huge mistake” to have an image taken of him flying over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina because, he lamented, he looked “detached and uncaring.”
Trump so far has been active on Twitter, showing that he’s on top of the latest storm developments and is meeting regularly with top aides to ensure resources are getting to victims. He’s also signed disaster declarations for both Texas and parts of Louisiana and told reporters in the Oval Office on Monday afternoon that he’s eagerly anticipating his upcoming travel.
“I’ll be going to Texas tomorrow. I look very much forward to it,” Trump said. “We don’t know exactly which sections — we’ll be notifying you soon — but we’ll be traveling throughout certain parts, and we may actually go back on Saturday. Depending on where the storm goes, we may also go to Louisiana on Saturday.”
Trump, however, is still on the defensive over his Charlottesville response and the decision to drop a load of controversial news under the cover of Hurricane Harvey on Friday, including his pardon of controversial former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the formalization of his transgender military ban and the ouster of national security aide Sebastian Gorka.
His non-storm-related woes appeared to deepen over the weekend as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis both distanced themselves from Trump, with Tillerson on Sunday telling Fox News that when it comes to Charlottesville and American values, “The president speaks for himself,” and Mattis recently urging troops to “hold the line” until divisions in the nation ease.
The combination of natural disaster and self-inflicted controversies marks a particularly rocky stretch of his presidency that may get worse as Trump faces an end-of-September deadline to avert a government shutdown and strike a deal on the debt ceiling with lawmakers he’s increasingly estranged from.
Still, the trip to Texas provides an opportunity for Trump to produce a presidential moment, which the White House tried to play up on Monday.
Vice President Mike Pence did multiple radio interviews in which he promoted Trump’s trip, saying the president is “anxious” to visit and convey to Texans that “we are with you.”
“I know the president and the first lady have been very anxious to come to the area, to see firsthand the efforts that are underway,” Pence told Trey Ware in a radio interview on KTSA.
“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.” “He’s deployed the full resources of the national government. He’ll reflect on that tomorrow and people can just be confident that as we move through this rescue operation, that we’re there for the long haul. We’re there for the long haul with Texas through the recovery efforts, but now’s the time to focus on lifesaving efforts.”
Harvey arrived late Friday as a Category 4 storm, battering the barrier islands near Corpus Christi, Texas, before moving northeast and dropping record rainfall amounts on the Houston area, parts of which are low-lying and prone to flooding.
In his radio interviews with Texas media, the vice president said the federal government has placed more than 8,000 federal officials in Texas and shipped more than 1 million meals and 1 million liters of water. Pence commended state and local officials for their response and praised Texans for their strength and resilience.
Extensive flooding from Harvey devastated parts of Texas over the weekend and is responsible for at least five deaths. About 30,000 people are expected to be housed in emergency shelters.
The slow-moving storm is expected to continue to create significant amounts of rain for the region through at least the first half of this week. And Pence urged everyone in the area to listen to local emergency managers and officials.
“This continues to be a very dangerous storm, and we’re not out of the woods. Life-threatening flooding will continue to occur and people just simply need to continue to heed the direction of local officials, and we’ll continue to lean into this effort with our support,” Pence said. “The most important thing is that people listen. Listen to local officials about how to respond and we’ll get through this. And the federal government will be there for the long haul to help rebuild Texas and all the affected areas from Hurricane Harvey.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Monday morning that the federal government’s response to Harvey’s devastating impact on Texas has been “very much like a military operation,” praising the leadership of White House chief of staff John Kelly.
“It’s amazing to see the Cabinet under the chief of staff Gen. Kelly,” Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, said of Kelly, a former Marine Corps general, in an interview on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.” “This is very much like a military operation: by the numbers, making sure the assets are surged forward, making sure we have communication with our assets and make sure all the secretaries are engaged.”
Zinke said Interior Department resources involved in storm response include emergency response teams from the U.S. Geological Survey, which have monitored flooding and sought to model how it will progress; and swift water rescue teams and assets from national parks and wildlife refuges. Response efforts, Zinke said, are being coordinated through Abbott and local authorities.
Pence added that disaster assistance will be available but stressed that the current focus is “100 percent” on rescue efforts.
“For businesses, there will be small business loans available,” he said. “There’ll be plenty of time once the floodwaters begin to recede for us to begin to deploy those resources, but right now, it’s on lifesaving efforts, getting people out of harm’s way.”
Trump, for his part, praised the response to Harvey and the spirit of Texans braving the storm. And he offered a potential glimpse of what he may say when he addresses the nation from Texas on Tuesday, particularly if he veers off script.
“It’s the biggest ever. They’re saying it’s the biggest,” Trump said of Harvey. “It’s historic. It’s really like Texas, if you think about it. But it is a historic amount of water, in particular. There’s never been anything like it.”
Trump, who spoke to reporters alongside Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, declared his love for the people of Finland and noted he had visited Finland in the 1990s as reporters left the Oval Office.
“I was famous in the ‘90s, too,” the president remarked.
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