President Trump clearly feels comfortable mixing politics with his response to Hurricane Harvey. But he might want to tread very carefully on that front. Coming across as insincere or unfocused in an extreme weather event has broken more practiced politicians.
This has all be interspersed with — and in the case of former sheriff Joe Arpaio's pardon, arguably released purposefully in the middle of — his responses to the hurricane and historic flooding devastating Texas right now. Here's a pretty typical sampling of what popped up on the president's Twitter account over the weekend:
Trump is playing a dangerous game here. Successful leadership in an extreme weather event is an intangible thing to measure, but it's oh-so-important for politicians to get right. A misstep in a weather event (preparing too little, preparing too much) can be magnified exponentially, especially in a weather event as historically debilitating as this.
More experienced politicians' careers have been broken or made by how effectively they prepared their citizens for and responded to massive storms. We don't use the phrase a politician's “Katrina” for nothing. One of the more extreme examples is the D.C. blizzards of 1987, when D.C. Mayor Marion Barry flew across the country for the Super Bowl and was photographed getting manicures.
Voters, especially those directly affected by the storm, probably aren't keeping score of the times Trump tweeted about the storm vs. politics this weekend. (About a 2-to-1 ratio as of Monday afternoon, in case you're wondering.) But Trump needs to be careful about giving even the appearance that he's less than 110 percent focused on the storm, said Washington University professor Andrew Reeves, who studies the politics of storm management.
“Trump will be judged both on his empathy toward those affected by the storm as well as the quality of the response along a number of dimensions,” Reeves said in an email to The Fix.
The odd thing is, Trump appears to be acutely mindful that he's giving off an impression of authoritative leadership in the wake of Harvey.
Mostly through his Twitter account, he let the nation know that he monitored the storm while at the presidential retreat in Camp David over the weekend. He tweeted photos of himself being briefed in the Oval Office. He spoke to governors in the path of the storm, and he's repeatedly cheered on federal, state and local officials and good Samaritans.
But Trump also risks undermining his carefully crafted public persona on Harvey by mixing in politics in some jarring ways.
Case in point: On Sunday, Trump promised to go to Texas “as soon as that trip can be made without causing disruption.” (He and first lady Melania Trump will go there Tuesday.) “The focus must be life and safety,” he tweeted.
But his very next tweet was totally incongruous with urging people stay safe in the storm: He bragged about how much he won Missouri in 2016 and predicted that Republicans will knock out Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in 2018.
Another example: On Saturday morning, after praising the coordination of all levels of government (“TEAMWORK!") he then praised Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a conservative provocateur, and urged his supporters to buy Clarke's new book.
If we've learned anything about Trump, it's that he lives in a perpetual campaign. And even when he would probably be served better by turning off the politics, he hasn't been able to. (See: Boy Scouts officials' “sincere apologies” to their nonpartisan organization after Trump bragged about his 2016 win, jabbed his political opponents and reminisced about partying on yachts while addressing thousands of Scouts in July.)
But the stakes are higher now. By mixing politics so casually with Harvey, Trump risks coming across like a politician rather than a leader — and in a national crisis, that can be the most devastating move of all for a politician.