Trump missed the memo: the president is also comforter-in-chief

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The president wears many hats (and we’re not talking about “Make America Great Again” or USA hats). The president’s constitutional roles include serving as head of the executive branch of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

But the American people have increasingly come to rely upon the president as comforter-in-chief. He is the person we turn to in times of national tragedy to “bind up the nation’s wounds” — in the words of Abraham Lincoln. 

{mosads}It’s a challenging role. We expect the president to unify the nation and console victims when natural catastrophes strike, war threatens our stability, violence and terrorism are unleashed and lives are tragically lost. In the shock, pain and confusion that often accompanies such calamities, the president is the nation’s pastor and priest — its spiritual leader.


The president is called upon to console, comfort, hug, listen, grieve, pray and maybe he even sheds a few tears of his own, as Barack Obama did. The president is called to rise above the immediate tragedy, set it in context, offer condolences and inspire with words of resilience, hope and encouragement.

This is what our presidents have always done — until now. Donald Trump lost his moment for moral leadership as the comforter-in-chief with his response to Hurricane Harvey. A detached businessman more comfortable with masquerading as a leader than being one, he failed to measure up to the standards set by his predecessors who acknowledged the loss and grief, and offered words of comfort to those involved in tragedies.

Four months after the bloody Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, a sober Abraham Lincoln visited the site of the carnage to dedicate a cemetery for fallen Union soldiers.

In his eloquent 272-word speech, the president honored the “brave men, living and dead, who struggled here,” and connected it to his resolve “that these dead shall not have died in vain,” but that the nation would experience a “new birth of freedom.” He was realistic, empathetic and visionary.

Almost a century and a quarter later, the soothing voice and comforting words of Ronald Reagan entered the nation’s living rooms one night in 1986 in a televised address from the Oval Office about the loss of seven lives in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

Reagan said that he was “pained to the core by the tragedy” and that “we mourn their loss as a nation together.” He spoke to the families of the seven, noting that “we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much.”

In 1999, Bill Clinton visited Oklahoma after it was ravaged by more than 70 tornadoes in a week. “Our hearts go out to those who have lost so much and, obviously, especially to the families of those people who lost their lives,” Clinton said. 

On September 11, 2001, it fell to George W. Bush to express empathy and bring healing to a nation shattered by terrorist attacks. “Tonight I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened.”

In 2005, despite a slow operational response to Hurricane Katrina, George W. Bush fulfilled his comforter-in-chief duties: “To all who carry a burden of loss, I extend the deepest sympathy of our country.”

After Hurricane Sandy ravaged New Jersey in 2012, Barack Obama was there telling the residents that “we need to make sure that everybody who has lost a loved one knows they’re in our thoughts and prayers — and I speak for the whole country.”

Trump’s response to Harvey has been characteristically all about himself and what the government is doing. He has neglected to address the pain, suffering, loss of life and disruption caused by Harvey. His has been the congratulator-in-chief, not the comforter-in-chief. His words have been short on specifics and long on vague and simplistic hyperbole.

Trump visited Texas on August 29 while the storm still raged. In his remarks in Austin, he didn’t express any empathy for those whose lives were devastated by the hurricane, or talk about the tragic loss of life. The president apparently didn’t get the memo that he is expected to do more than just thank responders and congratulate government officials — a not-so-subtle shout-out to his own involvement. 

The closest the president got to expressing empathy was in an impromptu speech outside a fire station in Corpus Christi that was filled with self-congratulatory remarks, when he said to the assembled crowd of supporters, “we love you. You are special. We are here to take care of you.” Those words, however, are a far cry from the empathetic and far more articulate words of his predecessors in similar circumstances.

Trump had a second chance on Sept. 2 to act as comforter-in-chief and again came up short. While he actually met with some of the storm victims, hugged them, played with children and helped hand out food, his public words reverted back to shallow optimism, and self-congratulations on the government’s response to the hurricane. He failed to express empathy to the victims. His emotional blindness caused him to inexplicably declare at a shelter that the people there “were just happy. We saw a lot of happiness.”

At a pep rally at a church on Saturday, the president was again heavy on congratulating everyone on the coordination of their response, thanking government officials and bizarrely spending most of his brief remarks on changes the Veterans Administration has made, instead of talking about the victims — grieving families for lives lost, economic ruin for families and businesses, health problems percolating up from the floodwaters.

Unlike previous presidents from both parties, Trump is in a world of his own and appears incapable of expressing genuine empathy. He puts a shallow optimistic marketing spin on everything, almost as if he’s afraid of facing pain, real facts and troubling circumstances. 

His words failed to measure up to those of his predecessors. He missed the memo that the president is called to be the nation’s pastor — not just its executive — and to serve as comforter-in-chief. 

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the founder of He is a frequent and popular speaker and is often quoted by the media about presidential history and politics, including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Huffington Post, BBC and others.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.
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