The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans could rise to meet the challenge of Harvey — or not

Moses Juarez, left, and Anselmo Padilla wade through floodwaters on Sunday in Houston. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Even before Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas, the White House and Congress faced a series of daunting challenges for September — the debt ceiling, the budget, tax reform, the accelerated pace of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia and the president’s possible obstruction of justice, a raft of still-unfilled political appointments leaving departments and agencies understaffed and adrift, the North Korea conflict, implementation of a not-so-new Afghanistan policy and demands from GOP governors to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Trump’s penchant for divisive, grandstanding actions that cast doubt on his competency and fitness threaten to make each of these situations worse. Now the question is whether Harvey makes matters worse, or provides an opportunity for sane, bipartisan governance.

In some cases, the question for Trump will be whether he reverts to temper tantrums and accusations or keeps focus on the hurricane rescue and cleanup operations. For example, the latest revelations on Russia might provoke new outbursts about “fake news” — as jarring and inappropriate as that might be when thousands of lives are at risk and billions in property damage threaten to overwhelm Texas, not only the biggest GOP stronghold but the state with the second-biggest economy. The Post dropped yet another bombshell on Sunday:

While Donald Trump was running for president in late 2015 and early 2016, his company was pursuing a plan to develop a massive Trump Tower in Moscow, according to several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers.
As part of the discussions, a Russian-born real estate developer urged Trump to come to Moscow to tout the proposal and suggested that he could get President Vladimir Putin to say “great things” about Trump, according to several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.

That stunning conflict of interest would be scandalous in its own right. But, of course, Trump throughout the campaign denied that he had any business in Russia. Given that the revelation would “also point to the likelihood of additional contacts between Russia-connected individuals and Trump associates during his presidential bid,” there will be further questions about Trump’s claims that there were no contacts between his team and Russia during the campaign. Trump may well lash out, as is his habit, once again reminding Americans that his only real obsession is his personal well-being. During a tragedy of unprecedented dimensions, Trump should have every reason to ignore the development, but Trump can rarely keep his entire focus on one topic.

Likewise, Trump has vowed to shut down the government if he does not get his wall, a ferociously expensive boondoggle that was already facing stiff opposition. Disabling the government and diverting billions to a useless wall when demands rise for a mammoth recovery package? That would seem incredibly foolish and irresponsible, even for Trump. However, if Texas’s economic and humanitarian needs take precedence, perhaps Trump can escape from the corner he has painted himself into. Likewise, even the Freedom Caucus may be dissuaded from demanding huge budget cuts in conjunction with raising the debt ceiling. (The debt ceiling might even be tied to a Harvey relief package, making it doubly hard for right-wing lawmakers to oppose it.)

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Then there is the threatened lawsuit from 10 states, led by Texas, to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Especially now, do Texas and the White House really want to start proceedings so that they can begin rounding up and deporting young people brought to the United States as children, some of whom may be among the victims of what is probably the worst disaster in Texas history? The utter lack of compassion entailed in that exercise provides a glaring contrast to the humanity and decency on display in the rescue efforts. One wonders whether the would-be litigants and the president might think twice before deciding on a course of action that was already unpopular with the vast majority of Americans and now looks downright monstrous.

In sum, Harvey provides an opportunity for the president and Congress to rethink their extreme, irresponsible gambits. They can attend to the real demands of governance, and earn some political credit. Alternatively, they can carry on as usual, which in the new context of human suffering and devastation would look even more irresponsible, cruel and thick-headed.