Trump faces leadership test with Hurricane Harvey

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Hurricane Harvey is bearing down on the Gulf Coast, with the first Category 3 hurricane to hit the U.S. since 2005 presenting an early test of leadership for President Trump and his ability to run the government in a crisis. 

The government’s response to natural disasters can have enormous political consequences for presidents, who are judged by everything from speed of response to photographs of their whereabouts at critical moments.

Hurricane Harvey comes at a perilous political moment for Trump.

The president has spent the last two weeks clashing with Republican leaders over his stalled agenda and dealing with intraparty strife over his response to the racially charged protests in Charlottesville, Va. 

Trump’s approval rating is historically low for this early in a president’s first term, and while his base has stuck with him, he appears to have very little margin for error. Only 220 days in, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has questioned whether Trump’s presidency can be rescued.

According to data from the latest Harvard-Harris poll, the public has little confidence in Trump’s ability to oversee the bureaucracy. Only 39 percent say they approve of the way the president has administered the government, a lower score than he receives for his handling of the economy, terrorism, immigration or foreign affairs.

“Given Trump’s low ratings on administering the government, the hurricane could be a make or break for him in a number of ways — will aid get deployed right? Will he be on the scene? Will he be compassionate?,” said Harvard-Harris co-director Mark Penn. “It’s a real-time test of his presidency.”

Cable news outlets are running endless footage of the storm as it approaches the Gulf Coast, with forecasters tracking rainfall that could reach 30 inches in some places and winds expected to top 120 miles per hour. Highways are clogged with evacuees and Texans and Louisianans are on last-minute runs for water and supplies.

The White House on Friday sought to assure the nation that the government’s response to the developing natural disaster would be thorough and timely.

The president will monitor the storm from Camp David in Maryland over the weekend, and has already planned a trip to Texas next week after the storm passes. 

Vice President Pence canceled a scheduled trip to Nevada to coordinate hurricane response with Trump from the presidential retreat about 60 miles outside of Washington. 

Trump homeland security adviser Tom Bossert is leading the administration’s efforts inside the White House and has been briefing the president, along with acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long and chief of staff John Kelly, who recently joined the White House after heading Homeland Security (DHS).

White House officials described a beehive of behind-the-scenes activity as the administration coordinates with local and state officials.

Trump has phoned Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edward (D) as their states prepare to take the brunt of the hurricane’s force.

Meanwhile, the president made a show of preparedness over social media, tweeting pictures of his Oval Office meetings and video of him touring FEMA facilities earlier this month.

“Now is not the time to lose faith in your government institutions,” Bossert said at a Friday press conference, urging residents in the hurricane area to follow directions from state and local officials.

Still, there appeared to be some concern from the president’s allies that he might overlook the natural disaster or not take it as seriously as he should.

Conservative news aggregator Matt Drudge and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have publicly urged the White House to be on high alert. 

Trump’s circle of senior advisers has frequently been seen as bumbling or riven with internal strife, with Washington insiders mocking what they view as an incompetent administration that fails at the basic tasks of governing.

Still, Trump’s disaster response team brings years of experience to the hurricane response. 

Bossert was a homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush and one of the authors of the government’s 214-page “Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned” document from 2006. 

On Friday, he said that episode still weighs heavily on him.

“I think it’s not just what’s on my mind but on the minds of all of the emergency managers in our community, especially those in Texas and Louisiana,” Bossert said. “That experience is still in their minds, in their muscle memory.” 

Bush’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina — and the picture he took in an airplane surveying the wreckage — is widely viewed as one of the low-points of his presidency. It contributed to Bush’s job approval rating sagging to 24 percent in his second term, the second-lowest rating ever recorded for a president. 

{mosads}Former President Obama was also not immune to criticism on this front. 

Republicans, including then-candidate Trump, hammered Obama last year for vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard during massive flooding in Louisiana. At the time, the White House said it didn’t want to interfere with the work being done by first responders on the ground. 

Conversely, in 2012, some political analysts said Obama’s response to Superstorm Sandy in late October before the election helped push him over the top in the race against Republican Mitt Romney. There, Obama famously embraced New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican.

Outside of Kelly and Bossert, the Trump administration will be approaching Harvey with new or temporary leaders in key positions. 

Because Kelly has not been replaced, acting secretary Duke will lead the DHS response. The White House on Friday declined to say when Kelly’s replacement will be nominated, and the post has been open for a month. 

FEMA administrator Long was only confirmed in June, although he has a good reputation as the former head of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency and state incident commander during the 2011 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Trump also has yet to nominate someone to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation’s weather monitoring agency.

“It is a concern,” Russel Honoré, who led the Joint Task Force Katrina in 2005, told CNN on Friday. “We don’t allow temporary coaches in the SEC, so why the hell are we running a federal agency with a temporary leader? It doesn’t create a team.” 

Bossert expressed confidence that the White House would meet the moment.

“We couldn’t have a better team,” he said.

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