WASHINGTON: Heeding botched presidential responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew, Donald Trump’s White House sought to show him in control and marshalling resources Friday (Saturday in Manila) as Harvey — a once-in-a-decade storm — bore down on Texas.
Trump bade “good luck to everybody” in the path of the monster category three storm, as aides distributed photos of him being briefed in the Oval Office and suggested he would visit the expected disaster zone early next week.
After days of near-silence in the face of what is Trump’s first major domestic challenge, the White House shifted into high gear.
Staff released images of Trump sitting behind the Resolute Desk, surrounded by aides and pouring over maps projecting the impact of Hurricane Harvey, which was expected to make landfall late in the day or early Saturday.
White House statements flowed into journalists’ email inboxes, as did details of Trump’s conversations with federal, state and local authorities.
“I encourage everyone in the path of #HurricaneHarvey to heed the advice & orders of their local and state officials,” Trump tweeted.
Trump’s homeland security advisor Thomas Bossert appeared behind the White House podium to tell Americans “now is not the time to lose faith in your government institutions” — a far cry from Trump’s frequent castigation of the authorities as feckless and wasteful.
Beyond real concern for those in harm’s way, and the commander-in-chief theater, is an acute awareness of the political fallout from storms past.
Trump’s two most recent Republican predecessors, George H.W. and George W. Bush, were criticized for their handling of Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, respectively.
“Keep on top of hurricane Harvey don’t make same mistake Pres Bush made w Katrina,” Republican Senator Chuck Grassley warned Trump in a tweet.
In 2005, more than half of Americans thought Bush had responded badly to Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast and left more than 1,800 people dead.
In the wake of the devastating storm, two-thirds said they did not have confidence in his ability to handle a crisis.
His presidency never fully recovered and images of Bush looking safely from window of Air Force One down at ravaged New Orleans became an indelible image of his presidency.
His father had faired a little better when Hurricane Andrew pummeled Florida in 1992, but the slow federal response was still credited with rocking Americans’ faith in government.
With the prospect of that kind of opprobrium in the offing, the White House defended Trump’s decision to go to the presidential retreat at Camp David for the weekend.
“It is just as well resourced as the White House,” said Bossert. “He’ll have access. It’s just 45 minutes up the road.”
And Trump quickly signaled he was not switching off.
“Just arrived at Camp David where I am closely watching the path and doings of Hurricane Harvey, as it strengthens to a Category 3. BE SAFE!” he tweeted.