Witcover: Trump's response to Hurricane Harvey fraught with political tension
By Jules Witcover
Sep 04, 2017 | 6:00 AM
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Hurricane Harvey may have wreaked havoc among thousands of Texans, but it has thrown a political lifeline to Donald Trump, handing him a much-needed opportunity to demonstrate he can play president in a time of national emergency.
The last Republican in the Oval Office, George W. Bush, initially settled for an antiseptic presidential flyover of Hurricane Katrina's assault on New Orleans 12 years ago, and was roundly criticized for it. Mr. Trump this time around made all the right moves in the current national emergency, rallying the country to a uniform humanitarian effort against nature's latest attack on millions of its citizens.
In contrast to Mr. Bush's tardy and seemingly insensitive response to Katrina, Mr. Trump responsibly steered clear of the worst of it in Houston while ordering massive federal relief in coordination with state and local rescue officials, without taking undue credit for it.
For once he employed his favorite messaging platform, Twitter, to commend the local first responders, both police and private citizens, in a widespread effort that concentrated on indiscriminately saving lives. He also called on Congress to provide whatever funds were necessary for swift and enduring support to the suffering masses in both Texas and neighboring Louisiana.
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At the same time, however, Mr. Trump drew strong criticism for announcing a presidential pardon for Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., and a political ally in his immigration reform campaign, who had been convicted of criminal contempt of court. He announced the pardon late Friday as Harvey began lashing the Texas coast. Critics saw the timing as a very contentious move.
The president also garnered criticism for seeming to lapse at times into his penchant for self-congratulation, boasting of the size of the crowd that gathered in Corpus Christi to hear him as he praised the rescue teams led by his Federal Emergency Management Agency director, Brock Long.
In 2005, President Bush was roundly chided for publicly telling his then FEMA director, Michael Brown, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job!" Mr. Brown was forced to resign 10 days later over his inept performance.
This time, Mr. Trump was more cautious at a meeting in a Corpus Christi firehouse with Mr. Long and with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. "We won't say congratulations," the president remarked. "We don't want to do that. We'll congratulate each other when it's all finished." Later, Mr. Trump allowed himself to observe: "It's a real team, and we want to do it better than ever before. We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now, this is the way to do it." As for Mr. Long, this media-fixated president called him "a man who has become famous on TV over the last few days," as if that fact were the highest accolade.
That rare bit of Trump restraint did not save him from some negative press commentary in two of his favorite journalism targets, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Each ran an analysis comparing his reference to crowd sizes, seeming to convey Mr. Trump's pulling power favorably to that of previous presidents in similar natural crises.
Ari Fleischer, the junior Bush's White House press secretary, said on Fox News: "There was something missing from what President Trump said ... that's the empathy for the people who suffer. In my opinion, that should've been the first thing he said, that his heart goes out to those people in Houston who are going through this and that the government is here to help them recover from this."
Even first lady Melania Trump, who accompanied her husband to Texas, did not escape some fashion criticism, for being photographed wearing stiletto heels boarding Air Force One en route to Hurricane Harvey. The fact that she changed into unglamorous white sneakers didn't save her from that ludicrous condemnation.
Thus is the state of this president's relationship with the American press, which has become a most contentious sideshow even to this unprecedented natural catastrophe.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.