WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump praised the “incredible” spirit of the people of Texas on Monday, one day before he heads to the Lone Star State to show support for areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
“Things are being handled really well, the spirit is incredible,” the president said at the White House. “It’s a historic amount of water, never been anything like it. The people are handling it amazingly well.”
Minutes later, during a joint press conference with the president of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, Trump said “tragic times such as these bring out the best in America’s character.”
The president noted acts of “neighbor helping neighbor, friend helping friend, and stranger helping stranger.”
Despite threatening just last week to shut down the government in order to get his long-promised border wall funded, Trump said he considers funding for hurricane recovery efforts “separate.”
“I think it has nothing to do with it, really,” he responded during the press conference when asked about a possible shutdown, predicting that Texas would be “up and running very quickly” after the hurricane, with optimism that Congress would act swiftly in a bipartisan fashion to fund the recovery.
“You will have what you want, I think,” the president tol a reporter from Texas who had asked about the funding.
Houston, which is underwater and expecting even more rain, won’t be on Trump’s itinerary Tuesday, but a second trip over the weekend to Texas and possibly even Louisiana, could be on his agenda, the president told reporters.
“Nothing can defeat the unbreakable spirit of the people of Texas and Louisiana,” the president said.
Instead of going to Houston, Trump will visit “closer to where the hurricane came across shore, which is closer to the Corpus Christi or San Antonio area,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday in response to questions about whether, with up to two more feet of rain still expected in the Houston area, it would be a good time for the president to visit.
First Lady Melania Trump will accompany her husband on the visit, her communications director tweeted Monday.
The White House has not yet announced the president’s itinerary.
In planning the trip, Trump faces the challenge of displaying his support and easing the region’s recovery — but without getting in the way of local officials who are both leading recuperation efforts and preparing for more bad weather.
That test is no small feat for a president who loves the spotlight.
Trump indicated on Sunday he understood some of the obstacles, tweeting that he would visit the state “as soon as that trip can be made without causing disruption,” adding that “the focus must be life and safety.”
Ahead of the visit, Trump and vice president Mike Pence were taking actions from Washington, D.C. to help the region.
Trump approved Louisiana’s request for a federal emergency declaration Monday morning, while Pence, in an interview with Houston radio station KTRH, reassured the people of Texas that Americans are with them and will be there to help rebuild.
A visit by Trump could create a logistical nightmare, even if it took place away from storm-hit Houston, with state and federal officials needing to devote all their attention to the submerged metropolis, where 20 more inches of rain were expected.
In addition, Harvey, now a tropical storm with winds about 30 to 40 mph, could also come back and hit land again, creating more headaches.
The storm is currently about 15 miles off the middle of the Texas coast and is slowly moving back toward coastal waters. It is expected to remain offshore through Tuesday before resurging in the Gulf of Mexico and turning back north toward southeast Texas on Wednesday.
Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, whose district encompasses Corpus Christi and a stretch of the Gulf Coast north of the city, told MSNBC Monday he was “a little bit” concerned that Trump’s presence could divert resources away from people in the area who need them, but said the Trump administration made it clear that they “don’t want to be in the way” or “become a burden.”
How Trump handles the aftermath of Harvey — the first natural disaster he’s faced in the Oval Office — could have lasting impact on his popularity and on the public’s perception of the president’s competence.
His two predecessors faced very different outcomes in their immediate responses to hurricanes.
George W. Bush, whose bungled and slow response to Hurricane Katrina is cited by historians as one of the most worst presidential responses to a natural disaster, was in Air Force One when he first surveyed the wreckage of the 2005 superstorm four days after it hit the Gulf Coast.
Bush, who’d been on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., was returning to Washington in Air Force One, which flew low over the Gulf Coast so he could see the devastation. The photos of a somber-looking Bush in his plane, however, backfired, creating the perception almost immediately that he was distant and detached from the horror on the ground.
With Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Barack Obama embarked on a helicopter inspection over New Jersey on Oct. 31, two days after the storm hit, and was greeted enthusiastically by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Obama also took an aerial tour of Queens, Staten Island and other areas hit in New York two weeks later on Nov. 15.
Trump, for his part, faces the added challenge of getting lawmakers to greenlight billions of dollars for the recovery in Texas, due to the skirmishes resulting from a Sept. 30 deadline to continue funding the federal government.
Ali Vitali reported from Washington. Adam Edelman reported from New York.