WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump set aside his focus on talking up Harvey recovery efforts to speak directly to the suffering of victims, saying “all of America is grieving with you.”
Trump’s Wednesday remarks on the ravages of the hurricane came at the top of an address in Springfield, Missouri, about the tax code. The president sought to reassure those who had lost loved ones and property. “We are here with you today, we are here with you tomorrow, and we will be with you every single day after to restore, recover and rebuild,” he said.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump tweeted that on his Tuesday trip to Texas he had witnessed “first hand the horror & devastation” wrought by Harvey. He wrote that after seeing the widespread damage, “my heart goes out even more so to the great people of Texas!”
But Trump saw little damage during his visit to Corpus Christi — mostly boarded- up windows, downed tree limbs and fences askew. And that was through the tinted windows of his SUV as his motorcade took him from the airport to a firehouse in a city already nearly back to normal.
The president deliberately kept his distance from the epicenter of the damage in Houston to avoid disrupting recovery operations. Trump also visited Austin during Tuesday’s trip, when he met with officials at the state emergency operations center.
Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, said Trump showed “genuine compassion” on the short flight to Austin as they watched video footage of the flooding in Houston. “The president was heartbroken by what he saw,” Abbot said.
But Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to former President George W. Bush, said there was something missing from Trump’s remarks in Corpus Christi: “empathy for the people who suffer.”
Trump plans to return to the region Saturday to survey the damage and meet with some victims, according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Trump pledged that his administration would work tirelessly to help the region recover.
“We are going to get you back and operating immediately,” Trump told a crowd outside a Corpus Christi fire station about 30 miles from where the storm made landfall Friday.
Trump was eager to get the federal disaster response right. But he missed clear opportunities to strike a sympathetic note for the multitudes suffering. The president did not mention those who died in the storm or those forced from their homes. He basked in the attention of cheering supporters outside the fire station where officials briefed him on the recovery.
“What a crowd, what a turnout,” Trump declared before waving a Texas flag from atop a step ladder positioned between two firetrucks. “This is historic. It’s epic what happened, but you know what, it happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything.”
Trump is clearly determined to seize the moment and show a forceful response to Harvey, mindful of the political opportunities and risks that natural disasters pose for any president. Trump has been dogged by low approval ratings and self-created crises.
It has long been presidential practice to avoid visiting the most devastated areas of a natural disaster while recovery is still in the early stages, to avoid getting in the way or diverting critical resources. In Texas, residents seemed to understand.
Before Trump landed in Texas, Louis Sirianni arrived at his beach house in Rockport, about 20 miles outside Corpus Christi, to assess damage. Sirianni said he appreciated Trump’s gesture and understood why there were no plans to take him into the hardest-hit area.
“He’d see enough if he came along here in a helicopter,” Sirianni said on a balcony accessible only by a 12-foot aluminum extension ladder.
The president, during his stop in Austin, said it was a “sad thing” that the recovery would be a “long-term” operation.