The Memo: Trump raises political stakes as hurricane looms

The Memo: Trump raises political stakes as hurricane looms
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE is raising the political stakes as the Carolinas brace for a direct hit from Hurricane Florence.

Trump has asserted that federal agencies are well-prepared for the huge impending storm, which is expected to make landfall anytime between Thursday and Saturday. 

He has also sought to defend his handling of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico a year ago.


That has sparked outrage from Democrats and other critics.

Trump skeptics argue that he will pay a political price if the expectations that he has set are not met.

“It’s a challenge for him,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina, adding that the aftermath of the hurricane would be “critically important” to voters in his state.

Trump won North Carolina by roughly 3 points in the 2016 presidential election. He carried South Carolina by a much bigger margin, about 14 points.

Jackson said Trump would have “to make sure that he is doing everything possible to get money into the recovery as fast as possible. He also needs to show empathy, which is not something this president has been able to do in a lot of other scenarios.”

Independent observers, meanwhile, mulled the wisdom of Trump setting expectations high in advance of an inherently unpredictable event such as the hurricane.

“By looking toward a disaster that hasn’t happened, that sets yourself up for difficulties if something goes bad after the fact,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.

Speaking at the White House on Tuesday alongside Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long, Trump called the response to Hurricane Maria “incredibly successful” and added, “I actually think it was one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about.”

Late last month, the official death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria was raised from 64 to almost 3,000.

During the same appearance, Trump boasted that the federal government was “as ready as anybody has ever been” for Florence, which is already whipping up waves of more than 80 feet in the Atlantic. 

Exhibit A in how natural disasters can have political ramifications is 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and gravely hurt then-President George W. Bush’s standing. 

President Obama was considered at similar political risk at some points during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which lasted for several months in 2010, though that event ultimately was seen as less significant than Katrina.

Chris Lehane, a veteran of former President Clinton’s White House, argued that a sure-footed response by Clinton to catastrophic flooding along the Mississippi in 1993 and to an earthquake in California in early 1994 “became a signifier of the overall Clinton administration’s competence.”

But he added that the hyperpolarized political environment right now could mean fewer people would be shifted one way or another by Trump’s response to any given disaster. 

Partisan identification, Lehane suggested, would likely be “the prism by which people consider the handling of any particular issue.”

Trump did in fact win some measure of praise for his actions last year in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in the weeks before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. He visited the Houston area twice in the two weeks after the hurricane, and the emergency response was widely lauded.

But the death toll in Puerto Rico, together with questionable moments such as the president tossing paper towels, basketball-style, to victims on the island created a very different effect.

Critics quickly slammed the president for his comments defending the Hurricane Maria response on Tuesday. 

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn Washington, the road almost never taken Don't let partisan politics impede Texas' economic recovery The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble MORE (I-Vt.), a 2016 presidential candidate and a likely runner again in 2020, tweeted, “Nearly 3,000 people died. That is not a ‘success.’ That is a tragedy and a disgrace.” 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats press Schumer on removing Confederate statues from Capitol Democrats' do-or-die moment Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan MORE (D-N.Y.) dismissed Trump’s claims as “blatantly false.”

As usual, however, Trump did not back away from his claims. 

On Twitter on Wednesday morning, he insisted that his administration had “got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida”; said that it had done “an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico”; and blamed most of the problems on what he termed “a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan.”

The mayor in question, Carmen Yulín Cruz, has been consistently critical of Trump.

Defenders of the president contend that it is his opponents, not Trump, who are politicizing these events, including the impending storm in the Carolinas.

“I think it’s a sad commentary when people try and politicize a disaster, and hope for the worst,” said Brad Blakeman, who served in the senior staff of former President George W. Bush’s White House.

Blakeman asserted that Trump had been proactive in preparing federal agencies and approving emergency declarations for the states likely to be affected by Florence. 

Still, he added, “the bottom line is that safety and security is all about home rule — it is about local townships, mayors, councils, and state representatives and governors. The federal government is the last resort and is the backstop to a robust local response.”

But Jackson, the Democratic strategist in North Carolina, warned that the hurricane could carry serious political implications with the midterm elections less than two months away.

“If the hurricane is as bad as they predict, this will be something that could affect people’s lives for days and months to come,” he said.

Those people, he added, will be watching the emergency response carefully as they weigh their votes.

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

--Read more from The Hill:

Trump questions Puerto Rico hurricane death toll: '3000 people did not die'