There is no such thing as bad publicity, the saying goes. For President Trump, the wisdom works for disasters.
On Sunday, Trump singled out the Coast Guard for its suddenly high profile amid dueling catastrophic hurricanes, first during Harvey in Texas and then in the Florida region as Irma ravaged the state’s southern coast and continued northward as a tropical storm.
“A group that really deserves tremendous credit is the United States Coast Guard,” Trump said at Camp David. “What they’ve done — I mean, they’re going right into that, and, you never know. You know, when you go in there, you don’t know if you’re going to come out.”
“If you talk about branding?” he continued. “No brand has improved more than the United States Coast Guard.”
Trump, often described as a visual learner, sat down with guardsmen and women on a tour of relief efforts in Texas on Aug. 29 to hear about some of the more than 11,000 rescues involving more than 2,000 active, reserve and auxiliary Guard members, and dozens of helicopters and boats. The visit appears to have made an impression on him.
Trump’s praise for the Coast Guard is a much-needed confidence boost for the service, which was roiled by early Trump administration proposals to cut $1.3 billion from its budget to help pay for the planned wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The proposal sparked calls from Congress to reconsider what dozens of lawmakers called “nonsensical” and contrary to Trump’s stated goal to harden the U.S. mainland from attacks.
The final Coast Guard budget proposed for 2018 was $9.1 billion, which stayed flat even as the Pentagon’s budget ballooned. Coast Guard officials were caught flat-footed by a president who campaigned on the promise to strengthen the military, and stem the flow of illicit drugs and undocumented immigrants — two of its key missions. The Coast Guard uniquely falls under the Department of Homeland Security.
Coast Guard officials have long said they need more money to overhaul the service’s aging ships amid a growing set of missions. Its fleet of medium cutters is two decades past the designated 30-year service life and needs to be modernized, a Coast Guard official said.
And it is struggling to keep up with aggressive Russian and Chinese expansion into the Arctic, where the service tasks a lone icebreaker ship to explore newly navigable waters as ice floes recede into warmer water. Its only other operational icebreaker, the Polar Star, was commissioned in 1976 and is assigned to the Antarctic region.
“I’m delighted that Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps are being plussed up, but we’ve got nothing left,” Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, said at a conference held by the Navy League in April.
In March, he called the cutter fleet “geriatric.”
Zukunft said in April that the service needed to “put ourselves in the limelight” or face further obscurity and budget tightening.
A spokesman for the Coast Guard declined to describe how it approached its media operation during the hurricanes as a way to remind the country about its work.
After Hurricane Harvey, the Coast Guard plucked civilians from floodwaters in helicopters and its fleet of small boats and provided aerial reconnaissance of the sprawling Houston area.
Guard members also set out to recover wrecked ships and navigational buoys and repair ports to jump-start commerce paralyzed by the storms.
The Coast Guard responded similarly after Hurricane Irma, and extended its efforts to the hard-hit U.S. Virgin Islands.
The other services have also been involved in Irma-related operations, with the Army deploying thousands of soldiers in helicopters and high-water vehicles, and the Air Force and Coast Guard running missions that include dangerous search-and-rescue operations. The Pentagon said Monday that 10,400 service members are involved in Irma relief in the Southeast, and 4,600 are in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
On Thursday, Trump headed to Florida to thank the Coast Guard, among others, for its efforts before, during and after Irma hit the state.
It is unclear whether Trump’s comments signal a deeper understanding of the Coast Guard’s mission or a greater commitment to deliver more funding in the next budget proposal.
“The president was simply recognizing the great job the Coast Guard has done in recent responses to hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” a National Security Council official said.
“The outstanding support they’ve provided to the survivors of recent storms, from search-and-rescue missions to the delivery of critical food and supplies, is an affirmation of the great respect the president holds for the service,” the official added.
But as Trump headed to Florida, one of his most persistent critics in Congress took pause to remind him that he hasn’t always been so supportive of the Coast Guard.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report, which has been updated.