The good news for Texans is that Donald Trump really, really wants to get this right. He knows Katrina doomed George W. Bush’s presidency. Trump, the developer, believes rebuilding after Harvey should be one aspect of his job he can actually handle.
The not-so-good news for Texans, and the rest of us, is that Trump so rarely gets anything right.
What I mean is, no other president — and, for that matter, no normal human being — would come to Texas to assess the response to Harvey and forget to mention the victims or to retell stories of rescues or to say how his heart breaks to see the loss but how he’s heartened at the same time to see the courage of so many ordinary people putting themselves at risk to save others or to even mention how those millions of Americans tuning in can help.
No other president would gaze out at the people gathered to see him at a Corpus Christi fire station and say, “What a crowd. What a turnout,” when the only size anyone cares about is the size of the storm, the 50 inches of rain, the size of the rescue-and-recovery team and the size of a nation’s heart as we try to take in the enormity of the loss. As I write, I’m watching the story of the 3-year-old rescued while clinging to her lifeless mother who had tried to take her to safety.
No other president would turn to the Texas governor in a press conference/briefing/photo op to begin to congratulate him for an effort that is only beginning, as the rains were still coming down and the rivers rising, as people in dire need of rescue were calling in vain for help. Trump caught himself and said instead to Gov. Greg Abbott, “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.” You know, just so long as he gets congratulated eventually.
No other president would tell Texans that “we are going to get you back and operating immediately,” as the flooding continues, and will continue, and as every other official warns of the long process of recovery that will take not weeks, not months, but years to complete.
No other president would say that the storm is “epic” and “historic” and forget to mention “catastrophic” and “heartbreaking.”
But, like all other presidents, Trump does want to be successful here. He wants to be the guy who beats epic and historic Harvey. He needs the win. He can’t get healthcare reform or much of anything else though Congress. He can’t seem to be able to intimidate North Korea. He can’t stop Robert Mueller’s investigation. He can’t stop the Washington Post and New York Times from trading blockbuster stories on the Russia connection. He can’t get Mexico or Congress or anyone else to pay for his wall. He can’t find a single poll to tweet that doesn’t show his ratings in free fall. He can’t get his Secretary of Defense to enact his bigoted transgender ban. He can’t get his top officials to stop disavowing his Charlottesville both-siderism. He can’t stop scientists from pointing to climate change and the predictions that storms would become ever more severe.
Mostly, Trump can’t stop himself from saying things like he pardoned the thoroughly-unpardonable Joe Arpaio last Friday because he thought the ratings — yes, the ratings — would be good as people watched Harvey bear down on Texas as a Category 4 Hurricane.
So, yes, Trump wants a victory here, although, of course, there’s no such thing as victory here. There is a long, long road to recovery. But Trump does have one advantage: He’s not worried whether conservatives in Congress are worried about the money to pay for it. You don’t think he’s going to sit around and listen to those who insist on offsets the way they did during Superstorm Sandy when a majority of Republicans — including all but one from Texas — voted against the final Sandy aid package. You don’t think Trump cares about — or even knew about — his budget proposal to cut FEMA’s funding. Trump doesn’t care what it costs so long as he can say, as he did to Abbott, that people will look back on this effort as a model for all to follow.
Trump flew to Texas as soon as he could in order to avoid Bush’s fate in Katrina. The image we have from Bush in that time was of him flying over the damage while looking down from his Air Force One window. His failure to stop in, say, Baton Rouge, was the failure that would come to define his presidency. And, of course, there’s the heckuva-job-Brownie comment, which only emphasized how out of touch Bush seemed to be with the disaster on the ground.
What Trump wanted from his trip was a we’ve-got-this moment. Or a hug-from-Chris-Christie moment. Instead, he had his “what-a-crowd” moment.
It’s easy to take that personally. My wife’s sister and her family live outside Houston. At last check, her neighborhood had been hit with 41 inches of water. That was a day ago. We impatiently await each email update. We breathe out each time she tells us she’s safe. The streets are flooding, she tells us, but fortunately her house is OK. So far. She writes how thankful she feels for that, knowing how many people have lost everything.
We can imagine Trump heading home and watching the news about his trip and coming away puzzled by the fake-news notion that a president’s job description includes consoling a nation in time of tragedy — and not making the story all about him. We can imagine Trump yelling at his staff for not reminding him to be empathetic or, failing that, to maybe look sympathetic.
Trump promises he’ll return to Texas soon, meaning he’ll get another chance to get at least that much right. And then someone can remind him that the actual hard part about making the recovery work is everything else.