President Donald Trump is on the verge of facing the first real non-self-inflicted crisis of his presidency — and it remains a mystery if he’s ready.
The potential crisis comes in the form of a massive hurricane gaining strength off the southeast coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. And if the forecasters are correct about Hurricane Harvey, a Category 3 storm could slam the Texas coast right before the weekend, bringing winds in excess of 125 miles per hour and dumping more than 25 inches of rain.
“Trump facing first serious crises with Hurricane Harvey,” conservative internet news mogul Matt Drudge tweeted Thursday. “130 mph winds Texas coast, 25-inches of rain Houston. It’s about to get real…”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was questioned about both Trump’s and the administration’s preparations for the hurricane during Thursday’s press briefing. She said Trump has been briefed and is keeping “a very watchful eye” on developments.
“You’ve got acting [Homeland Security] Secretary Elaine Duke, watching this closely, very involved in the process, along with the acting director for FEMA,” she told reporters. “I think we’re in great shape having Gen. [John] Kelly sitting next to the president throughout this process.”
There’s “probably no better chief of staff for the president during the hurricane season,” she continued. “And the president has been briefed and will continue to be updated as the storm progresses and [it’s] certainly something he’s very aware of and will keep a very watchful eye on and stands ready to provide resources if needed.”
Soon after Sanders’ briefing, Trump tweeted about the storm, posting links to ready.gov, fema.gov, and hurricanes.gov. Attached to the tweet was a video of Trump touring the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier this year.
“With Hurricane Harvey approaching landfall, remember, the USA is the most resilient nation on earth because we plan ahead,” Trump said in a statement that was displayed at the bottom of the video. “Preparedness is an investment in our future.”
For Trump, Hurricane Harvey is shaping up to be the first major natural disaster of his presidency.
Some of the agencies tasked with handling the administration’s response are currently in the midst of turnover, as the Department of Homeland Security is now under the control of Duke, the acting director who took over for Kelly once he departed to be Trump’s chief of staff. At FEMA, Trump’s nominee to lead the department, Brock Long, was confirmed in June, but a number of major positions in the agency remain unfilled or are occupied by acting employees.
Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist and president of the Potomac Strategy Group, said Trump is coming into the situation without the experience of having previously dealt with such a disaster, something he said is “unusual for political figures.”
“What’s unusual about Trump is that he has, as far as I know, zero disaster response experience,” Mackowiak told Business Insider. “Now, that’s true for 99.9% of individuals, but it’s unusual for political figures. At some level, no matter what level you’re on, you’ve had some sort of disaster where you live. He hasn’t. So he doesn’t have the perhaps working knowledge that most people would have.”
Mackowiak said, in terms of his response both leading up to the event and in its aftermath, Trump must give the perception that he is on top of all of the developments, is concerned, and is using his platform to disseminate critical information.
“What doesn’t work is sort of sitting back and hoping that it’s not severe and that the state and locals will handle it,” Mackowiak said.
If disaster strikes, Mackowiak said it will be critical for Trump to “rely on experienced people” and be “very specific about what he says.”
“You don’t want to create a public panic, but you do want people to take it all very seriously,” he said. “This is probably not something he’s spent a lot of time thinking about. He’s probably thought about disaster relief more in terms of terrorism with his national security briefings. … This is going to be an interesting challenge.
He added that it’s “hard to say” whether Trump is prepared for the moment, since he doesn’t have experience in the area. However, he said that isn’t indicative of whether Trump’s and his administration’s response will be lacking.
Still, the question going into the weekend will be whether Trump can “focus on an area like this in a crisis,” as Mackowiak said.
“This is going to be a real test of the administration,” he said. “It’s going to push a lot of things to the back-burner. I don’t know what else he has the next couple days, but he’s not going to be in a position to do a lot of other things publicly. He should be staying at the White House, taking phone calls, getting briefed, talking to his cabinet, talking to local officials, and putting his administration in a position to respond where needed.”
In a column for The Washington Post earlier this month, Ron Klain, the former chief of staff for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, said August could be an extremely dangerous month for Trump and the administration, highlighting the threat of a major hurricane as a top reason why.
“Would the Trump administration respond effectively?” he asked. “The president just stripped the Department of Homeland Security of its leader, was blasted by the outgoing head of hurricane forecasting for how his budget cuts could set back this work, and lacks any experience (as a senator or governor) with navigating a difficult disaster response. As a political matter, a botched hurricane response in the Gulf Coast or Florida would see Trump criticized — not by blue-state leaders he can mock or ignore — but by key members of his own coalition.”