President Trump Visits Texas To Assess Harvey Damage

Aug 29, 2017
Originally published on August 29, 2017 6:06 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump traveled to two Texas cities today. The White House chose Austin and Corpus Christi for the trip, avoiding Houston so they wouldn't get in the way of search and rescue teams. At a fire station in Corpus Christi, the president heard from first responders in Austin. He visited an emergency response center. He met members of his cabinet and local officials in both places. NPR's Geoff Bennett joins us now to the - from the White House to talk about this. Hey there, Geoff.

GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So the president's day trip to Texas provides him with an opportunity to demonstrate his handling of a natural disaster as commander in chief. How did he approach it?

BENNETT: Well, the White House says the president's trip today is aimed at laying the foundation for what will be a very long recovery effort. I would add, though, that inasmuch as natural disasters can become defining moments for a presidency, it appears President Trump is trying to project a sense of competence around the federal government response. He's trying to show that he's fully engaged.

And there's a note of context here, too, because a Pew Research Center survey out today shows a majority of Americans do not like the way Trump conducts himself as president. That includes a majority of Republicans who were polled. And so you know, following his handling of the North Korean crisis, his handling of the racial violence in Charlottesville, the president is now demonstrating to the country how he handles disasters.

And the White House, I'd say, is certainly looking for scenes like the one that unfolded outside a firehouse in Corpus Christi today. That's where a crowd of what's described as a few hundred people cheered as Trump came out. He stood on a ladder between two fire trucks. And here's some of what he said to the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will tell you. This is historic. It's epic what happened. But you know what? It happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything. Thank you, all, folks. Thank you.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

BENNETT: And as the president finished speaking, he held up a Texas flag to the crowd. And that elicited, you know, long applause, lots of cheers. Reporters who are traveling with him say he faced a far less friendly crowd in Austin, which, as you mentioned, was the second leg of the trip.

MCEVERS: How much does it help the president politically that the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, is a Republican and one of the president's supporters?

BENNETT: You know, I think the relationship certainly helps. You know, the president described Abbott as a friend. There's always a risk of talking politics in the middle of a disaster when so many people are hurting. But I would add that I think the president's relationships - his effectiveness in office are the very thing that can get help to the people who need it.

And so today you have the White House and Governor Abbott both saying that - Trump administration began coordinating a response to Harvey early last week, well before this storm made landfall. And I think it's worth noting something else the president said today in Corpus Christi with Governor Abbott sitting at his side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: So, Governor, again, thank you very much. And we won't say congratulations. We don't want to do that. We don't want to congratulate. We'll congratulate each other when it's all finished.

BENNETT: So, Kelly, you can hear the president catch himself. He doesn't want to suggest that the relief effort was over when it was still clearly ongoing. I think the president is clearly trying to avoid a direct comparison to former President George W. Bush, who, you know, we all remember praised his then-FEMA chief during a tour of Hurricane Katrina and was lambasted for it since the wide consensus was that he had mishandled the initial federal response to Katrina.

MCEVERS: But unlike the Bush administration during Katrina, some of the Trump administration officials tasked with overseeing the federal response to Harvey have experience in emergency management, yeah?

BENNETT: Yeah, I mean namely FEMA director Brock Long, who, by the way, the president today praised for becoming very famous on television due to the storm. But in any case, Brock Long was the head of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, and before that, he was the hurricane program manager at FEMA. And then there is retired General John Kelly, who before becoming Trump's chief of staff was the head of the Department of Homeland Security. And so while there are departments and agencies within the administration that are not fully staffed or in some cases they're led by appointees who lack direct relevant experience, that appears not to be the case with this disaster relief effort.

MCEVERS: The president has promised quick action on disaster relief money from the federal government. Is that going to happen?

BENNETT: Well, yeah, some of his comments give the sense that he's marshaling the federal disaster relief effort all on his own when in fact he has to go through Congress to get that done. It's not at all safe to assume Congress will authorize that money quickly because we don't yet know the total cost, and we don't yet know how it will affect the many other important things Congress has to do when it reconvenes in September. But I think here again, the president's trip is important because it puts a spotlight and puts some pressure on members of Congress to make good on his promise of getting that money to the people who need it very quickly.

MCEVERS: And the White House says the president intends to go back to Texas relatively soon.

BENNETT: That's the plan - as early as Saturday, the White House says.

MCEVERS: NPR White House reporter Geoff Bennett, thanks a lot.

BENNETT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.