As tragedy unfolds, Trump faces test of counselor-in-chief

President Donald Trump speaks with Texas Governor Greg Abbott aboard the Air Force One, August 30, 2017.

President Donald Trump is still reaching for the right tone to match the vast, unfolding human tragedy of Hurricane Harvey.

As he readies his next trip to the disaster zone at the weekend, Trump is taking steps to show more overt compassion and empathy for the victims following criticism of his initial visit in Texas on Tuesday.

His first effort to fill his role of the nation’s counselor at a time of crisis — following his divisive rhetoric this summer — will intensify when he returns to the disaster zone at the weekend.

By then, the magnitude of the catastrophe and the political challenge it will pose for the White House may be become clearer, as flood waters begin to recede from vast tracts of residential areas, with the death toll likely to rise.

But if the President’s attempt Wednesday to ignite his push for tax reform at an event in Missouri is any guide, his political strategy for the coming months could be overtaken by the aftermath of a disaster that Texas Gov. Greg Abbot said had caused “larger” damage than hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Concern

As scenes of human misery unfolded on television screens on Wednesday, with elderly patients being rescued from nursing homes and Navy helicopters lifting residents from neighborhoods, Trump sought to add a note of deeper concern to his public comments on the crisis in Texas.

He said in Missouri that the storm had revealed the essential strength and goodness of the American character.

“We see friend helping friend, neighbor helping neighbor, and stranger helping stranger, and together, we will endure and we will overcome,” he said, as news reports showed scenes of flooding and devastation.

And after failing to mention victims during his trip to Texas for a briefing from federal, state and local officials, Trump highlighted the human cost of the monster storm that is only now beginning to be revealed.

“To those Americans who have lost loved ones, all of America is grieving with you and our hearts are joined with yours forever,” he said.

Trump’s remarks were more effusive and sweeping than anything he managed on Tuesday, and were more in line with poetic and patriotic rhetoric that Americans expect at a time of national tragedy.

But the fact that they took place at the start of an event to promote a political priority made them seem like an aside to the main event transfixing the nation. And as is customary when Trump reads scripted remarks, his delivery lacked the passion that he generates with his improvised rhetoric.

Television networks showed Trump’s remarks on tax on a split screen, emphasizing the slight incongruous nature of the event — at which Trump jabbed the state’s Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, at a moment when most politics is on hold in deference to the tragedy unfolding in Texas.

The fact that Trump did mention the storm, however, was a sign that he understood he did not do as well as he might have done on Tuesday.

And as he flew home on Air Force One, Trump underlined the point, tweeting an excerpt from his remarks.

There was a sense by some in the White House, though, that he needed to do better.

One White House official told CNN’s Jim Acosta that Trump should have focused his meetings in Texas on Hurricane victims.

That opportunity will come again with his plans to travel to Louisiana and Texas at the weekend on a trip that will allow the President to come face-to-face with people who have been badly affected by the historic storm.

Lessons learned

The shadow of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Louisiana coast in 2005,and triggered political shocks that badly damaged the presidency of George W. Bush, is hanging over the Hurricane Harvey response.

But so far, unlike 12 years ago, there has not been the obvious government dysfunction, miscommunication between state and local authorities or the impression that federal officials are indifferent to the suffering.

Houston and its suburbs have not experienced the breakdown of civil order that made the post-Katrina streets so dangerous and forced the deployment of reserve and regular troops. So the political ramifications have not been as profound — so far.

Yet with many flood victims waiting to be saved, an unknown number unaccounted for and huge areas of the disaster zone under water, it is to early to say whether the White House has weathered the political storm.

Trump is yet to learn the scale of the likely federal infusion of cash and resources that will be necessary to rebuild the affected area. His administration is likely to face a follow-up effort of many years and great complexity that will require a sustained political focus that the White House has struggled to demonstrate during the President’s first seven months in office.

Emergency funding

The need to pass a swift and hefty package of relief funding is likely to squeeze the congressional calendar in September that is already straining under must do items like raising the debt ceiling and funding the government.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn said Wednesday that he and his Lone Star state colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz, would start working on a supplemental appropriation bill when they return to Washington next week.

“The President called me this morning at 6:30 and said I just want you to know that whatever you need, whatever the state of Texas needs, we’re there for you,” said Cornyn.

For now, partisan politics is largely quiet, as the Labor Day weekend approaches and politicians hesitate to make partisan points during a disaster.

But wrangling over the scope of federal aid is likely, if the aftermath of recent monster storms like Hurricane Sandy is any guide.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was in the eye of Sandy that hit the East Coast in 2012, offered a preview of how that might unfold with a blast against Cruz, who earlier explained his vote against a Sandy funding bill, saying it was packed with funding for lawmakers’ special projects.

“I see Sen. Cruz and it’s disgusting to me that he stands in a recovery center with victims standing behind him as a backdrop,” Christie told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “New Day.”

“He’s still repeating the same reprehensible lies about what happened in Sandy (and) called on Congress Wednesday morning to work fast on a bill to aid Texas after Hurricane Harvey.”

At some point, it might be up to the President to corral and cajole Republicans and Democrats toward a swift spending bill, a task that could be complicated by the political divisions he has opened, apparently deliberately, during a presidency in which he has done little to reach out to his political foes.

A delayed political calendar could also test Trump’s patience. He has after all, threatened to shut down the government if he does not get funding for his promised wall on the Mexican border, a project for which there is already limited support in Congress.

A Harvey relief and rebuilding bill worth billions of dollars may leave lawmakers even less enthusiastic about opening the coffers for Trump’s marquee campaign promise.