White House Memo: Harvey Gives Trump a Chance to Reclaim Power to Unify

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A storm that is ravaging low-lying areas gives Mr. Trump a chance to reclaim the presidential high ground. But many of those in the president’s orbit are worried Mr. Trump will not be self-controlled enough to maximize the moment.

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President Barack Obama comforting a Hurricane Sandy victim in October 2012 in Brigantine, N.J. Credit Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Senior officials, led by John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, have gingerly urged the president to stick to a script vetted through official channels. And Mr. Trump has toned down his presence on Twitter — mildly — relying more on the kind of official statements and news media availability used to by his predecessors. But no one, including Mr. Kelly, expects him to remain silent or on message if he comes under criticism over his response to the storm.

Local officials, for their part, do not care about Mr. Trump’s mood. They simply want him to pay attention to their plight.

“In a week or two, after something like this, people tend to forget about you,” said Joe McComb, the Republican mayor of Corpus Christi, which sustained less damage than nearby Rockport, Galveston and Houston. “Getting him down here is a way to make sure he’s making a commitment. He’ll see what happened for himself. He’s rough and gruff, but I think he’s got a good heart.”

During his news conference Monday, Mr. Trump repeatedly praised the joint response of federal officials, echoing his upbeat tweets over the weekend. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who has been in contact with the president, Vice President Mike Pence and other federal officials, gave the White House an “A-plus” for quickly declaring the state a disaster area and mobilizing federal resources.

Still, Harvey — a sluggish rainmaking behemoth that has already dumped as much as three feet of rain in some places — is unpredictable, and much of the worst damage might be wreaked over the next few days. And, as Hurricane Katrina proved 12 years ago in New Orleans, initial coordination between federal, state and local officials can quickly give way to acrimonious finger-pointing, with dire political consequences for all of those involved.

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who spent Monday in fast-flooding Houston, praised Mr. Trump’s initial response and his efforts to coordinate with local officials. But Mr. Cruz also cautioned against complacency while the rain was still falling.

The president promised Monday to push a major recovery package through Congress and predicted, with some justification, that it would garner widespread bipartisan support — even though his conservative Republican allies opposed a similar aid package for Northeast states after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

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In August 2005 on Air Force One, President George W. Bush inspected the damage Hurricane Katrina caused New Orleans. Credit Susan Walsh/Associated Press

“A lot of these guys, including Ted Cruz, really turned their backs on us after Sandy,” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, who serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sought to allay anxiety about the federal commitment, saying his agency planned to be in Texas “for years” after Harvey.

Yet uncertainty abounds. In addition to the as-yet-untold toll on people and property, there is the unpredictable element of Mr. Trump’s emotional weather, which can shatter the prevailing harmony in an instant, through a tweet or a taunt.

“So far, he’s been aggressive and forward-leaning, which is encouraging,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian. “It’s possible he can get through a cycle, the politics and the substance of a disaster, for the first time in his eight months in office. But you know somebody is going to say something that bothers him, something critical that he sees on cable, and suddenly it becomes fake news, fake weather.”

So far, the storm has done little to diminish Mr. Trump’s propensity for muddying moments of presidential leadership by picking fights with the news media or his political opponents. On Monday, moments after gravely reading his tribute to national resolve and the spirit of emergency workers in Texas, Mr. Trump enthusiastically defended his decision to pardon Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., as Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday.

But this time is different, people around Mr. Trump insist.

The president, who prefers to skim rather than delve, has seldom been more engaged in the details of any issue as he is with Harvey, according to several people involved in disaster response.

Mr. Trump, one aide said, was fascinated by the long-term effect of water damage on structures in the Gulf Coast, peppering FEMA and National Security Council briefers with detailed questions about the flooding in Houston and Galveston. As the extent of the projected devastation became apparent over the weekend during a meeting at Camp David, he shook his head in disbelief and compared the situation to problems he experienced when managing his family’s apartment buildings in New York. “Water damage is the worst,” he told one staff member, “tough, tough, tough.”

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Pounding rains and rapidly rising floodwaters caused by Hurricane Harvey pummeled the city of Houston, a metropolitan area of 6.6 million.

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Still, many of the most substantive conversations about the relief efforts — including interactions with elected officials — have been routed through Mr. Pence, who has played a similar role in pushing the president’s legislative agenda.

But a week ago, as they prepared for the storm to hit Texas, Mr. Trump and his aides were acutely aware of President George W. Bush’s slow response to Katrina, and the awful optics of a disengaged president flying high above the disaster to view the damage in a dry, cosseted presidential plane.

Despite a reputation for political sang-froid, Mr. Trump appeared genuinely moved by the early images of devastation in Texas — just as he was motivated by images of children killed in chemical weapons attacks in Syria before ordering airstrikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad in April, his aides said.

In Texas, as in the Mideast, Mr. Trump and his team saw an opportunity to exhibit decisiveness and to project strength.

In recent days, the president has frequently harkened back to his decision a year ago to tour flood-ravaged sections of Baton Rouge, La. — a visit that he viewed as a turning point in his presidential campaign.

When reports of flooding in the Mississippi River city hit the news, the Trump campaign immediately dispatched Mr. Pence to tour the affected areas, in part because Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival, forewent a visit of her own. When Kellyanne Conway, then the newly appointed campaign manager, told Mr. Trump that his running mate was en route to Louisiana, he responded by asking aides, “Can I go too?” according to three campaign officials familiar with the exchange.

When Mr. Trump offered to donate thousands of bottles of water to the recovery effort, Ms. Conway made one suggestion, according to a former Trump associate: He had to strip the “Trump Ice” labels off first.

Continue reading the main storySource: New York Times – Politics

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