LYNN HAVEN, Fla. — President Donald Trump may have found a new pastime he enjoys even more than campaign-style rallies: playing consoler in chief following major storms.
On Monday, an upbeat Trump toured a Florida neighborhood wrecked by Hurricane Michael, with downed trees, damaged roofs and a deserted school. In the sweltering sun, dressed in khakis and a black windbreaker, he greeted neighbors, passed out water bottles and posed for selfies at an aide distribution center with a very friendly crowd including one onlooker who vowed to vote for Republicans in the midterm elections.
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The optics of late have been different than the images to emerged from past tours of disaster areas, where cable news channels and late night hosts picked up on scenes that made the president look out of touch or unrelatable — the president tossing paper towels to Hurricane Maria victims, or handing a bucket to a pickup truck driver instead of placing it in the back.
The administration has sought to avoid such coverage by demonstrating — via frequent news conferences, through surrogates and on social media — that the president and top officials are on top of things, one official said. Trump has come to more fully understand the significance to the people in the midst of a crisis, as well as how the fallout is viewed by TV audiences who may judge the totality of the response by a brief snippet of exposure, according aides.
While touring Florida on Monday, Trump told onlookers that his administration is “doing more than has probably ever been done” when it came to this storm response. “In 30 days, you will not recognize this place,” he said as he stood before a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer and shook hands with Florida Gov. Rick Scott yet again before a bevy of television cameras. Scott, stepping back from his own U.S. Senate campaign to tend to the aftermath, stressed he’s spoken to Trump every day since the Category 4 storm struck his state.
The stakes are incredibly high for Trump and Republicans to get the hurricane response right in the homestretch before the midterm elections. Florida, in particular, has a handful of competitive House races up for grabs — not to mention a hotly contested Senate seat, which could affect Republican control of the chamber, and a critical gubernatorial race in which the Republican candidate is trailing.
The state also holds the key for Trump’s own political future. If he hopes to win reelection in 2020, his campaign must again win Florida, according to Republicans close to the administration. Trump’s approval rating in the state has hovered in the mid-to-high 40s, dipping a bit in recent months, but still better than his numbers in other swing states.
Florida’s disaster politics go back decades and are deeply entwined with the federal government’s degree of partnership with state and local officials. The elevated stakes bring considerable opportunities — and perils — for a politician thrown into the eye of the storm.
The response to natural disasters often has a powerful effect on the public standing for politicians. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saw a surge in popularity following both Hurricane Irene and Sandy, while Scott saw his favorable approval rating rise after some of his early storm leadership. Former Gov. Jeb Bush also built his reputation as an exceptional hurricane leader.
“Executive leadership matters, and people will credit someone who looks like they have a handle on the situation,” said Republican strategist Brett Doster, a veteran of Florida politics who served as the state’s executive director for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential reelection campaign. “Florida is now in a great position to make the White House look good. Rick Scott is in a great position to make the White House look good.
“And,” Doster added, “vice versa when it comes to this White House and the state and its governor.”
Former President George H.W. Bush was pummeled over his administration’s disorganized response to Hurricane Andrew damages in September 1992. Bush barely held on to win Florida that November, 41 percent to 39 percent, but the victory represented a huge drop over 1988.
His son, former President George W. Bush, generally received strong marks for his disaster preparedness and recovery work in Florida after winning here in the 2000 recount. But he suffered irrevocably over Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Subsequent White Houses have since tried to avoid some of the most fraught images during the Katrina fallout — in particular the picture of a grim-faced president flying above while looking over the hurricane’s devastation. The image, fair or not, would come to symbolize the yawning gap between Americans and their president.
Jeb Bush, the state’s former two-term governor, and in recent years Scott, have built strong storm-related reputations that are very much the opposite of the elder Bush’s. Jeb Bush helmed the state through several major storms, while Scott has been the chief executive though nine hurricanes and tropical storms. Trump allies point to Scott and his office as a kind of on-the-ground secret weapon for the president’s administration.
On this trip, Trump went to great lengths to engage with Florida residents affected by the storm. He spent several minutes standing before the house of 74-year-old Michael Rollins, a longtime Florida resident who did not evacuate so he could take care of his four pets including three dogs and a parrot. The storm damaged Rollins’ roof and wiped out the trees in his front yard, so that all that was left was a muddy pit.
Rollins extolled the help of the area’s first responders who cleared his fallen trees, while the president and first lady Melania Trump stood beside him.
“Michael has been here for many hurricanes, and he’s never seen anything like this,” Trump added as commentary before moving on to talk to residents at two more homes.
The mayor of Lynn Haven accompanied him, stressing the town did not experience any casualties.
Officials in Washington and on the ground acknowledged it’s far too early to assess the reaction, but the Trump White House and its allies are keenly aware of the risks he faces at the moment. The night before Trump traveled to see the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael, his administration authorized additional disaster funding for Florida and Georgia.
Throughout the trip, Trump used his characteristic hyperbole as he spoke about the impact of the storm. “Somebody said it was a very wide, extremely wide tornado,” he said as he stood next to Scott and FEMA Administrator Brock Long. “This was beyond any winds they’ve seen for, I guess, 50 years.”
While Trump has resisted appearing overly polished during these tours, he now appreciates the weight of his visit, and how it plays on TV, according the president’s aides and allies.
As he prepared for last month’s storms in the Carolinas, Trump was still smarting over coverage of him tossing paper towels like basketballs to victims of last year’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, a moment that forced a rare break by some top surrogates in Florida.
No such moments occurred on Monday — or in the run-up, when the White House used the president’s Twitter account and other available channels to instruct people to load up their own phones and devices with relevant and useful apps.
During the Florida tour, the first lady wore big black boots, not heels, as she did while leaving the White House before changing on the way to surveying the damage of Hurricane Harvey last year in Texas. Presidential staffers also dressed casually, most in white shirts, as their boss spent most of his time talking to people and reassuring them the administration and local authorities were all over it.
“There have been times in the past when the president has been criticized as being unapproachable and aloof,” Doster said. “But then when you see these images of him reaching though the car window to shake a woman’s hand, or handing her a water, or unloading a truck, regardless of whether he worked out there eight straight hours or whether he worked out there an hour, with people who are dealing with a crisis that is just unprecedented, that’s going to have a political impact.”
He added: “At the end of the day, the best form of politics is governing well if you are the party in power. And at no time is that more important than in a time of crisis.”
For Trump, who has spent much of his energy on turning out his conservative base, the Florida response represents a rare opportunity to appeal to an elusive group of Floridians and Americans who still consider themselves persuadable.
Florida officials from both parties were deeply involved in the run-up to the storm and its response — with one Republican in particular using the ravages as fresh evidence for the need to act on climate change — a vexing issue that Democrats believe could emerge as a blind spot for Trump in 2020.
GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, whose 26th District encompasses parts of several areas particularly susceptible to rising sea levels, including Miami, the Florida Keys and the Everglades, told POLITICO that it’s important for Trump to see the devastation of a storm like Michael firsthand, “especially in the wake of his disappointing comments on climate change yesterday,” a reference to Trump’s remarks on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that the climate may “change back again.”
“As we continue to observe how warmer global temperatures make storms stronger and extend hurricane season, our state needs thoughtful, sober leadership on this issue,” said Curbelo, adding that he raised the issue when Trump previously visited the Florida Keys.
On Monday, Trump was asked whether he thought weather would occupy so much of his time during his presidency — “Weather has been a factor and yet, they say [the] worst hurricanes were 50 years ago,” Trump said, sidestepping a reporter’s question on climate change.
When pressed on climate change again, Trump relented: “There is something there.”
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