Trump’s chance to show empathy for Harvey victims in return trip to Texas and Louisiana

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 10:28pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 10:28pm

US President Donald Trump brought plenty of optimism and swagger to Texas on his first visit to survey Harvey’s devastation. He’s getting a chance to return with empathy.

At stops in Houston and Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Saturday, the president planned to survey storm damage, talk with residents and meet volunteers. Those elements were missing from Tuesday’s trip to Texas, which was described by critics as being off-key for a presidential visit to discuss communities in crisis.

In Corpus Christi and Austin, Trump sat with emergency responders and officials who were coordinating recovery efforts with his administration. The event was marked by Trump’s impromptu speech to supporters outside a Corpus Christi firehouse – “What a crowd, what a turnout,” he said – instead of images of the president consoling victims or walking among the damage caused by of the storm.

Trump kept his distance from the epicentre of the damage, in Houston, to avoid disrupting recovery operations. Still, critics said he failed to adequately express compassion for the families of those killed in the storm’s path or those whose homes were flooded. He raised eyebrows when he predicted his approach would be a model for future presidents to emulate.

“We want to do it better than ever before,” he said. “We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, ‘This is the way to do it.’”

“There was a lot of high-fiving about how well this disaster was being handled even as people were on their rooftops hoping to be rescued,” said David Axelrod, a top adviser to former president Barack Obama. “People need to know that their president is emotionally engaged in their struggle and part of the obligation or the responsibility of a president, particularly in a media age, is to make that human connection.”

Trump later voiced more direct concern for those caught up in the storm. At the start of a speech in Missouri on Wednesday, he said the nation was praying for those in Harvey’s path and “we are here with you every single step of the way”.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasised that Trump planned one-on-one time with victims on Saturday.

Trump may take cues from vice-president Mike Pence, who visited a damaged church, cleared away tree limbs and debris, and hugged storm victims.

“All American hearts are with the people of Texas and Louisiana,” Trump said in his weekly radio address aired on Saturday. He described “a spirit of love, determination and resolve” that he said he sensed during Tuesday’s visit.

On Friday, Trump met evangelical leaders to promote his proclamation of Sunday as a national day of prayer for those affected by the storm, along with relief organisations heavily involved in the recovery.

“I’m confident that this will be an opportunity for the president, on behalf of the entire nation, to show compassion and empathy for those who have lost homes and have had their lives interrupted and in some cases have lost loved ones,” said Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition.

He was among the evangelical leaders who met the president.

Trump has sent lawmakers an initial request for a US$7.9 billion down payment toward Harvey relief and recovery efforts – a request expected to be swiftly approved by Congress, which returns to work Tuesday after its summer break.