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Trump Returns to Gulf Coast for Test as ‘Comforter in Chief’

TEXAS — President Donald Trump is getting a second chance at the post-natural disaster presidential visit.

Trump, joined by first lady Melania Trump, landed here at just after noon ET on Saturday to witness the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey firsthand and meet with survivors, four days after his first visit to Texas. Then, he touted the size of the crowd that greeted him outside a firehouse but failed to mention the storm’s victims, leaving critics and even some allies saying he failed to demonstrate the empathy and compassion presidents are expected to display during these visits.

Trump on Tuesday stayed mostly indoors during his visit to the state, where he received briefings on the disaster relief efforts from federal, state and local officials — an itinerary aimed at avoiding the hardest-hit areas so as not to pull emergency responder resources from ongoing search and rescue operations. His visit on Saturday is expected to be markedly different.

Joined by a cadre of Cabinet secretaries and White House chief of staff John Kelly, the President and first lady landed at Ellington Field in Houston, where he was greeted by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long.

Flooding and damage was visible from the air before landing, according to pool reporters traveling with the President on Air Force One.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasized Friday that Trump had not been able to go into Houston on Tuesday, but will now get a chance to meet with storm survivors, seeming to preview a trip that will check all the boxes that Trump did not during his first visit.

“He’ll have the chance to meet extensively with quite a few storm survivors, as well as talk with some of the volunteers that are helping administer a lot of the support that these individuals have needed over the last week,” Sanders said. “And then from there, he’ll go to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he’ll do a stop there as well, meeting with a lot of the volunteers and other storm survivors.”

Engagement

The President has been eager to show he is engaged in helping with the response to the storm, including posts on social media and public remarks.

“When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. When we see neighbors in need, we rush to their aid. We don’t ask their names or where they are from — we help our fellow Americans every single time,” Trump said in his weekly address.

He added: “All American hearts are with the people of Texas and Louisiana. We mourn and pray and struggle through the hardships — together.”

But Trump’s second visit on Saturday now comes in the wake of a visit by his Vice President Mike Pence, who toured some of those hard-hit areas on Thursday, hugging victims and clearing debris in a tour that amplified the criticism that Trump had faced. Some will now be expecting Trump to meet that bar on Saturday.

Trump appears to have internalized much of that criticism, tweeting the morning after his visit that his “heart goes out even more so to the great people of Texas!”

He claimed to have witnessed “firsthand the horror & devastation,” though reporters traveling with him said he did not.

He also tweeted shortly after landing in Houston on Saturday: “TEXAS: We are with you today, we are with you tomorrow, and we will be with you EVERY SINGLE DAY AFTER, to restore, recover, and REBUILD!”

And Trump acknowledged the need for more empathy he addressed the storm with a decidedly more emotional tone during a Wednesday speech on tax reform in Missouri.

“We see friend helping friend, neighbor helping neighbor, and stranger helping stranger, and together, we will endure and we will overcome,” he said.

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

Comforter in chief

Saturday’s stops offer Trump another opportunity to serve as the nation’s “comforter in chief” following the tragedy, his first major crisis while in office.

But his vice president — who played that part on Thursday — has now raised the bar for Trump going into his visit on Saturday. Pence prayed at a church badly damaged by the storm, rolled up his sleeves as he met with victims whose homes were damaged, and even got to work dragging tree branches out of a front lawn, perhaps foreshadowing imagery from the President’s forthcoming trip.

As the floodwaters subside and the death toll likely rises in the coming days, the storm will also begin to have long-term political implications for the administration.

Harvey is projected to be one of the most expensive natural disasters in US history. Two estimates on Wednesday put total losses — including property damage, lost wages and disrupted business — at as much as $75 billion.

“We are still in response mode, and that means lifesaving, life-sustaining,” homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told reporters at the White House Thursday. “But we’re soon going to move into a long, frustrating recovery process. And the important message for me to leave to the American people and to the people of Texas and Louisiana at that point, is that we’re not going anywhere.”

Trump will also be there to reassure those in need that federal resources will be there as they begin the rebuilding process; The Trump administration on Friday asked Congress for $7.85 billion in disaster relief funding as part of an initial request for funds. The House could vote on the funding as early as next week.

And the Trumps have promised to cut a $1 million check to Texas recovery efforts, Sanders, the White House press secretary, announced Thursday. He has not yet determined which group or groups will receive the donation.