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How President Trump is navigating Hurricane Harvey

August 28, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR join Miles O’Brien to discuss President Trump’s response to Hurricane Harvey and the growing divisions within the Trump administration and the Republican Party.
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MILES O’BRIEN: We stay with the politics of the Arpaio pardon, plus the growing public rift between President Trump and key members of his administration with our regulars, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Tamara, let’s begin with you.

Hurricane Harvey is President Trump’s first natural disaster test. These are important for presidents. Go back to Katrina, 2005, and how that affected President George W. Bush at the time.

How would you score him so far?

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: I think it’s too soon.

This is an ongoing natural disaster. It is still raining as we speak in Houston. And so it’s really hard to know exactly how this is all going to play out, since it’s ongoing. He’s planning to go tomorrow to Texas. He’s planning, we think, to stay outside of the main, most heavily impacted areas.

And it’s an interesting choice. A lot of presidents have waited longer, not wanting to take resources away from the ongoing disaster recovery and rescue efforts. President Trump is making a calculation that being there on the ground is important.

And this is a president who has shown that he is easily moved by the stories of individual people. So if he goes to Texas and he meets individual people and he sort of feels these stories viscerally, it may change the way he talks about the disaster.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, you mentioned the way he talks about it, or, in his case, more likely tweets about it.

Amy, we will put up a screen with some of the tweets that occurred from Friday until now from the president. There are a couple addressing the storm itself. But they’re oddly, in a strange way, upbeat, talking about teammate and — teamwork, I should say, and things going along.

And then there’s stuff about NAFTA, then the wall at the border to Mexico, and then a recommendation of a book by David Clarke, the Milwaukee County sheriff, another very controversial sheriff.

Amy, were those the right tweets, do you think?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Listen, I think the attention right now, for the first time in a long time, is not on Donald Trump. It’s on the rescuers and the people who are being rescued in Houston. And it’s on another politician. And that’s Governor Abbott of Texas, who is the person who’s the point person there now on the ground.

The president is going to get a lot of attention as he goes to Texas this week. But I think that the focus, as Tam pointed out, is going to be the long-running success of the state government and of the federal government.

But right now, I think what people are seeing is the story, which is that neighbors are coming out and helping neighbors, the Coast Guard, that things are actually at this point working.

The tragedy with Katrina was that from the very outset, everything collapsed. The levies collapsed. Government, state, local and federal collapsed. That’s not what we’re seeing here.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, here in Washington, before Friday, Tamara, there was a lot of talk about a possible showdown, a government shutdown over this issue of whether to build the wall or not.

Does this disaster change that appreciably?

TAMARA KEITH: It should. I think it does.

And the president was asked about it today in his press conference, and he said this is not related to the disaster and we’re going to get the funding that’s needed to deal with Harvey.

It seems quite likely that, given everything that is going on with Harvey, Congress will find a way to probably do what they do best, which is kick the can, or any other number of analogies, to push this off, to get it to December, to mess up the holidays, but to get out from under the shadow of this disaster that doesn’t need a government shutdown to compound things.

MILES O’BRIEN: All right, let’s shift gears.

Do you have something you want to add?

AMY WALTER: No.

MILES O’BRIEN: All right, let’s shift gears and talk about the continuing backlash on Charlottesville and the president’s statement subsequent to that.

Very interesting to see yesterday the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, on “FOX News Sunday” addressing who’s speaking for whom here.

Let’s roll the tape for a moment.

REX TILLERSON, Secretary of State: I don’t believe anyone doubts the American people’s values or the commitment of the American government or the government’s agencies to advancing those values and defending those values.

CHRIS WALLACE, Host, “FOX News Sunday”: And the president’s values?

REX TILLERSON: The president speaks for himself, Chris.

MILES O’BRIEN: And then there was another little piece of tape from the secretary of defense, General Mattis, with some troops offering sort of similar sentiments.

Amy, is there a real rift here between the president and the people at the top of his Cabinet?

AMY WALTER: And there’s another person that you didn’t mention was Gary Cohn, who’s his top economic adviser, who in an interview with F.T. said that he was getting pressured to resign over comments that the president had made about Charlottesville.

And, in fact, there was reporting in The New York Times that he actually had penned his own resignation letter.

But the bottom line is, yes, there are risks obviously about the president’s response to Charlottesville. But they are staying in his administration. Nobody has quit. Nobody has actually resigned. And this is what you’re seeing just in general with the isolation that the president is getting right now, both with his own Cabinet and with his own party in Congress.

So much of it is over style and the tweeting and the behavior. It’s not necessarily over substance. That’s usually where you see parties break part. Right. We thought we were going to see this with the president on some of the substantive issues in which he disagreed with his party, whether it was on taxes or on trade or on some of the social programs.

Today, we’re not seeing it on the policy, as much as we’re seeing it on the behavior.

MILES O’BRIEN: Tamara, he’s also aimed an awful lot of criticism at members of his own party. And I think Ronald Reagan described that as the 11th commandment. You never criticize members of your own party.

What’s the strategy there? Could you see what it might be?

TAMARA KEITH: President Trump is a brand. President Trump is more popular than Republicans in Congress among Republicans.

And President Trump sees this as working for him. And you hear from people who say, you know, I love President Trump, and Congress and the swamp need to figure this out. You know, they need to move along and go along with what the president is saying.

What is remarkable, though, is also Republicans and members of his own Cabinet who no longer seem afraid of the president. It’s sort of a remarkable thing. They’re not afraid of a rogue tweet or an angry backlash in the way that six or eight months ago they might have been afraid of it.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, he seems to be doubling down with the base in a sense.

AMY WALTER: He is.

Tam is exactly right. There’s a piece of him that is really all about protecting his brand. He doesn’t want to get dragged down and he is much more popular than Congress is. Interestingly enough, there are also some Republicans who don’t mind that they’re separate, seen as separate from Donald Trump, especially going into a midterm election.

They say, normally, when the president is unpopular — right now, he’s sitting at somewhere 38, 40 percent approval rating — he drags the whole party down with him because his brand is the party brand. Their hope right now from some Republicans is, our brand is actually different. We can go and separate ourselves from some of his behavior, even though, you know, we still all — we all have an R behind our name. We’re seen as different. We can project ourselves, present ourselves in a different way than the president.

MILES O’BRIEN: All right, that’s Politics Monday.

Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, thank you both for joining us, as always.

AMY WALTER: You’re welcome.

TAMARA KEITH: You’re welcome.

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