Harvey: How Will Trump Handle His First Presidential Crisis?

Texas is being devastated by Hurricane Harvey and its record-breaking rains, which are causing tremendous flooding in the Houston area. On a personal note, my younger brother and his family live in Sugar Land, in an area that is under voluntary evacuation. I do not know the extent of the flooding in his neighborhood, but I know that the situation appears to be worsening. Oil refineries are offline, homes are being swamped, and the rain just keeps on coming. It is a time of tension and misery in the state of Texas.

This trying time also provides a chance for an embattled President Trump to either make up for a dismal beginning to his unexpected term in office, or prove irrefutably that he is unfit for office.  Although the commander-in-chief has promised swift federal assistance for the Texas coastal region, the debacle of the inept response to Hurricane Katrina looms large in the public mind.  Have FEMA and various other government agencies improved their act since 2005, or will we witness another Superdome? 

Many are asking why more efforts were not made to evacuate the Houston area, given its high risk of flooding. The response, which is understandable due to Houston’s massive size, is that any large-scale evacuation would cause an unimaginable traffic jam, risking countless drowning deaths as motorists became trapped on flooded roads. But, as storm waters rise, there seems to be a dearth of leadership, and citizens are second-guessing earlier decisions to not call for an evacuation. Texas needs leadership from the White House, and it needs it now.

Donald Trump has shot himself in the foot countless times since entering the Oval Office, but now a tremendous crisis gives him a chance at redemption. George W. Bush and his administration are seen as largely having failed the test of Hurricane Katrina…can Trump score a victory by proving his leadership abilities against the misery of Harvey? Given the magnitude of the disaster, a skeptical public will likely be in a mood to forgive Trump of his past foibles. Strong leadership that helps save Houston can give Donald Trump the public relations victory he so desperately needs.

Unfortunately for Trump, he already seems to have gotten off on the wrong foot when it comes to Harvey. Apparently, the controversial chief executive intentionally chose to unveil his Joe Arpaio pardoning during the hurricane-dominated news cycle to minimize its coverage. Instead of focusing on Hurricane Harvey, Donald Trump was trying to invigorate his base by pardoning the right-wing Phoenix, Arizona sheriff of his contempt of court conviction. While this might sit well with ultraconservatives in the West and Southwest, Trump’s decision to focus on Arpaio over Harvey may cost him Texas in 2020.

The President will arrive in Texas on Tuesday to see the tragic results of the hurricane, and all eyes will be on his response to the devastation. It will be his time to shine, or stumble. If he uses the media attention as an opportunity to push his partisan platform, he will further damage himself in the eyes of moderates and independents. To be frank, the prediction is dreary: Trump has botched almost all chances to play the uniter. After the violence in Charlottesville, the President ultimately chose to avoid condemning the white nationalists and decided to support keeping Confederate statues on their pedestals.

Given his track record, what might Trump say to ruin the moment after Hurricane Harvey?

Houstonians need action, and action now. A major American city lies distraught, its economic power drowned by floods. Energy markets are in crisis, and many thousands of homeowners have been displaced. At a time when Trump desperately needs a win, any win, he could score major political points by giving an uplifting speech, mobilizing the U.S. military to action, or declaring a generous aid package. Any attempt to criticize Democrats, liberals, or moderate Republicans will neutralize the positivity of his message, and the President will remain known as an opportunistic bully.

Conservative Texas politicians like U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, state governor Greg Abbott, and lieutenant governor Dan Patrick should also be put on notice. In the aftermath of Harvey, as Houston and its suburbs are threatened by flooding, there is no place for partisanship. The history books, if not the voters, will remember politicians who squander opportunities to save Texan lives, property, and economic prosperity in order to cling to partisan ideals. President Trump has praised governor Greg Abbott and insisted that he is with Texas and Louisiana 100 percent.  Will he prove to be true to his word?

As a Texan, I am willing to give Donald Trump, a man I loathe, a chance to prove his mettle in helping my state recover from a disaster of epic proportions. He may not win me over, but he has the chance to win some begrudging respect. If he fails, he will lose my faith forever.

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