The Memo: Trump grapples with disaster in Texas

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President Trump faces political opportunities and perils as he visits Texas on Tuesday, grappling with the first natural disaster of his administration.

Trump has been careful to avoid projecting any sense of disengagement in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, such as the pictures of then-President George W. Bush observing Hurricane Katrina’s damage from Air Force One.

The president kept up a steady steam of tweets throughout the weekend, and the often-criticized White House press operation took a proactive approach, sending out photos of him being briefed on the situation.

{mosads}He will travel to Texas with first lady Melania Trump and has already suggested that a return trip could be in the works this weekend.

Details of Tuesday’s visit are scant so far, but it is expected that Trump will see some of the damage wreaked by Harvey first hand and meet with some of its victims.

It will all require a delicate touch, and even some Republicans question how he will do.

Peter Wehner, who served in the administrations of the three Republican presidents prior to Trump, said that part of the job description at such moments “is to show empathy for people that are suffering and to hear their stories and to share in their pain.”

He questioned whether Trump would ace the test, arguing that showing empathy is not one of the president’s strengths.

On Twitter and at a White House news conference on Monday with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, Trump has sounded a note of unity while underlining the trauma people in the affected areas are feeling.

He proclaimed that “we are one American family,” expressed solidarity with the people affected by Harvey and insisted that additional aid would come fast.

Responding to a question from a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, Trump promised, “You are going to see very rapid action from Congress; certainly from the president. You are going to get your funding.”

Speaking to the people in the disaster zone, he said the government and country are “100 percent” behind you.

To date, there has been little of the organizational chaos that followed Katrina in 2005, even though the magnitude of the storm itself is broadly comparable.

GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, who is based in Texas, said that natural disasters are “always a leadership test.”

Harvey was, he added, “the first domestic crisis that President Trump faced. A lot of us were watching closely. It’s too early to say that he passed it, but the early reviews have been positive.”

Trump was criticized by many for announcing his controversial pardon of former Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio as the hurricane rolled in on Friday night.

At Monday’s news conference, he argued that he did so because he “assumed the ratings would be far higher.”

Trump’s willingness to embrace polarizing actions like the Arpaio pardon even amid a looming natural disaster is one of the reasons why critics doubt he can unite the nation in the days ahead.

“I don’t want to seem crass about it, but there was an opening for him to put a lot of the divisiveness behind him and he missed it,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi.

Trump also unveiled guidance to the Pentagon for banning transgender people from the military in the shadow of Harvey’s approach, another fact Trippi cited.

“This was a time when he could have been saying let’s all pull together and it could have been a unifying message. Instead, he doubled down on being divisive,” the Democrat said.

Still, some independent observers suggest that some of the criticisms of his decision — based upon the idea that it might distract from relief efforts — are overdone.

“He has got to go there, and he has got to go there while the problem is still extreme, while the place is still in a state of crisis,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.

“Looking at past instances, one could imagine things could go sour here. But politically I don’t think there is any question he needs to go down there and needs to be seen. I think any president in his place would also go there early.”

Even Trippi acknowledged that it was “difficult to argue” with the actions taken at the federal, state and local levels with respect to the storm.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

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