By Glenn Thrush
WASHINGTON – President Trump traveled to storm-brushed Corpus Christi, Texas, on Tuesday to survey some of the damage caused by Tropical Storm Harvey and demonstrate his personal commitment to a region still in the grips of a historic natural disaster.
Trump, who pushed aides to schedule a trip to Texas as early as possible after Harvey made landfall there on Friday night, settled on visiting Corpus Christi because it was the closest he could get to the hardest-hit areas without disrupting recovery efforts, according to state officials. The port city of 325,000 is 30 miles from the most severely affected parts of the Gulf Coast, and suffered relatively light damage from the initial impact of the storm.
After meeting at a Corpus Christi firehouse with state and federal officials, the president flew to Austin, Texas, for another meeting with officials involved in responding to the flooding before returning to Washington.
Members of Trump’s staff said the trip was mainly a humanitarian mission and that the president winced while watching televised scenes of ruin and rescue on the flooded streets of Houston on his way to Corpus Christi. But they conceded that the stakes were high for Trump on his first visit to a disaster area that was inevitably seen as a test of his competence and empathy.
For the most part, Trump kept to the script. But there were a few jarring, quintessentially Trumpian moments.
At Joint Base Andrews, his wife, Melania, who accompanied him, boarded Air Force One, bound for the disaster zone, in 6-inch stiletto heels that became the subject of wide comment on social media. Instead of touring shelters or visiting local residents in their homes and businesses, Donald Trump stuck close to emergency management officials – men in uniforms – and seemed most animated when he basked in the applause of an impromptu rally outside the Corpus Christi firehouse.
Although he repeatedly emphasized the difficulties and perils ahead, the president spoke effusively about the success of the response, as the storm churned ominously north and local officials cautioned against complacency.
At the meeting in Corpus Christi, Trump urged state and federal officials to make the response a model for the future. “It’s a real team, and we want to do it better than ever before,” Trump said. “We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it.”
Even as Trump visited Corpus Christi, attention was focused on the growing catastrophe gripping suburban Houston, a sprawling, low-lying metropolitan area with a population of 6.3 million 220 miles to the northeast.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, and other officials who met with the president, sought to allay concerns about conditions at the convention center in downtown Houston, where 9,000 residents fleeing rising floodwaters have crammed into a makeshift shelter designed to accommodate 5,000.
“This is not the Superdome,” Brock Long, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said, referring to where residents of New Orleans endured nightmarish conditions while seeking shelter at a sports arena after Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago.
The people at the convention center have food and security, Long said, adding, “All eyes are on Houston, and so are mine.”
A crowd of about 1,000 people, some of them cheering, greeted Trump as he left the firehouse. He grabbed a Texas flag and shouted back to the crowd, seeming to forget, for the moment, that he was at the scene of a disaster and not one of his rallies. “What a crowd!” he said. “What a turnout!”
In Austin, the president heard from other officials, including Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, at a meeting at an emergency management center in the State Capitol complex.
“Sounds like such an innocent name, Ben, right?” Trump said, remarking on the name Harvey. “But it’s not innocent.”
Trump, his aides say, is eager to avoid the mistakes made by President George W. Bush in 2005, when he took a relatively hands-off approach to the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. While Trump faced a smattering of protesters, many in the town seemed happy he had shown up.
The president’s appearance in Austin, a liberal stronghold in a deeply red state, was his first as president. The Texas Republican Party chairman, James Dickey, said Trump’s visit was devoid of politics, but he acknowledged that Republican officials had discussed whether the presidential mission would interfere with disaster relief efforts.
But Dickey said that Trump could not afford to repeat the mistakes made by Bush in his response to Katrina. “Anyone paying attention will take away the lesson that they can never make that same choice no matter how well intentioned it was,” Dickey said.
Trump’s staff also took pains to avoid the perception that he was swooping in for political gain, at a time when locals officials were focused on survival, not optics.
“The president wants to be very cautious about making sure that any activity doesn’t disrupt any of the recovery efforts,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Air Force One on the way to Texas. “I don’t know that we will be able to get to some of the really damaged areas.”
Vice President Pence and officials from the Department of Homeland Security have taken the lead in negotiating many of the details of the federal response to Harvey, but Trump has made a point of emphasizing his involvement in the crisis.
On Monday, the president pledged to quickly pass an appropriations bill to deal with the massive damage to private property and public infrastructure, and said he would return to the region this weekend. As he headed home Tuesday, five Republican members of the Texas congressional delegation, including Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, praised both Trump and Abbott for what they described as “an extraordinary job” in marshaling federal and state resources to confront the disaster.
Accompanying Trump from Washington was an entourage of aides that included John F. Kelly, his chief of staff; Marc Short, his legislative affairs director; several Cabinet members; and specialists from the Small Business Administration, who will assist local businesses with recovery loans.
But the passenger who attracted the most attention was Melania Trump, who boarded Air Force One wearing a green jacket, slacks and stilettos. She emerged from the plane in Corpus Christi wearing a white jacket, and a baseball cap emblazoned with “FLOTUS” and white tennis shoes.
After attracting attention for her shoes earlier in the day, Melania Trump issued a statement as Air Force One returned to Washington. “I want to be able to offer my help and support in the most productive way possible, not through just words, but also action,” she said.