We shall see. But whatever Trump sees in Harvey as far as a test of presidential leadership and a time for solemnity, his past begs for skepticism. That's because Trump's penchant for controversy has never really taken a break in the face of tragedy. Faced with gravity, Trump's response has almost always been to try to defy it.
Perhaps the most telling example, of course, was just a few weeks ago when a white supremacist allegedly drove a car into a crowd in Charlottesville, killing one and injuring many others. Trump's first response was to blame “many sides.” When he was criticized for that, he briefly corrected course but then returned to the “both sides” rhetoric that has even his aides publicly breaking with him.
When tragedy struck in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub in June 2016 — the worst mass shooting in U.S. history — Trump's initial response was to claim credit for having predicted it.
Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
His response to the Brussels attacks in March 2016 was similar, claiming prescience about the whole thing. In tweets and interviews, he would go on to talk about how the city had decayed — nodding to his nationalistic supporters. “Brussels was a beautiful city, a beautiful place with zero crime, and now it's a disaster city. It's a total disaster,” he told Fox News. “We have to be very careful in the United States. We have to be very vigilant as to who we allow in this country.”
I have proven to be far more correct about terrorism than anybody- and it’s not even close. Hopefully AZ and UT will be voting for me today!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2016
On a smaller scale, Trump also claimed credit for his prescience when NBA star Dwyane Wade's cousin was fatally shot in Chicago last August, tweeting that it was “just what I've been saying.” He then turned it into a campaign appeal: “African-Americans will vote TRUMP!”
Dwyane Wade's cousin was just shot and killed walking her baby in Chicago. Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 27, 2016
After the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., Trump frequently repeated a dubious claim that people saw the attackers building bombs but didn't turn them in for fear of being seen as racially profiling them. He also blamed the Muslim American community for not informing on fellow Muslims. “How about the person who knew what was going on said they didn't want to report them because they think it might be racial profiling, did you see that?” Trump said. “We have become so politically correct that we don't know what the hell we're doing.”
After the attacks in Paris in April, Trump was quick to say it looked “like another terrorist attack” before French authorities had even labeled it as such. He was similarly ahead of the authorities when he declared that a bomb had gone off in New York City in September.
The point is that Trump's default is not to wait and see how a situation shakes out or to be excessively cautious; it's to try to take credit and to politicize it.
That's not so much a judgment as it is a statement of fact. Politicizing stuff for what you see as a good cause — such as preventing future terrorist attacks or getting elected — is clearly justifiable in Trump's mind and to his supporters. But one thing it doesn't do is unify anybody. Other politicians are much more careful about trying to insert themselves into tragedies or trying to gain some advantage from them, even if it appears shameless and insensitive. Trump seems to believe tragedies are opportunities to No. 1 Talk about himself, No. 2 Provoke and/or No. 3 Push his agenda.
In that way, it's possible Harvey could be different. Unlike these terrorist attacks and Charlottesville, which ignited all kinds of passions about who is responsible and what might have prevented it, there is no obvious hot-button political cause presented by a natural disaster. It's about saving lives and recovery.
But we've already gotten a taste for how Trump could take this into very disunifying territory. First he lodged his hugely controversial pardon of Joe Arpaio on Friday night, just as the storm was beginning to hit Texas, and then he explained Monday that he did it so ratings would be better. (That sure doesn't suggest he's terribly concerned about being seen as exploiting Harvey.) He's also sent tweets playing up the severity of the storm — tweets that suggest he has his eye very much on how much credit he's about to get for dealing with this natural disaster.
Those around Trump may truly believe he finally gets it. As always, they are also one wayward comment away from being very wrong.