President Trump, clearly, has an eye for luxury — even in the most unexpected circumstances.
Walking along River Drive in New Bern, N.C., a low-lying neighborhood that was pummeled by a one-two punch of Hurricane Florence and post-storm flooding, Trump greeted residents and surveyed the devastation, according to a Wednesday pool report account.
Then he saw the yacht.
It was beached in a resident’s backyard.
“Is this your boat? Or . . . did it become your boat?” Trump asked the man who lived in the house where the boat was now inadvertently and incongruously docked.
No, it was not his boat, the homeowner replied, according to the pool report, which didn’t identify residents by name.
Trump returned his gaze to the vessel, which was white with brown accents and balanced at a precarious angle.
“At least you got a nice boat out of the deal,” he said, with a smile.
Whether Trump was joking or simply pointing out a bit of silver lining, the interaction prompted some to question the president’s empathy for the many Carolinians whose homes and possessions were destroyed in Florence — the latest in a string of his responses to natural disasters to be criticized.
In the hours after Florence made landfall last week, more than 350 people had to be rescued from New Bern, which is flanked by the Neuse and Trent rivers. More than a foot of rain fell on the Colonial-era city, and the storm’s winds drove in water from the Atlantic Ocean, overwhelming the rivers and flooding much of the community. By Monday evening, 25 people were confirmed dead in North Carolina.
In New Bern days later, the president was seeking more information on the grounded boat’s condition — a good yacht should never go to waste. He asked the crowd of reporters, residents and handlers who were escorting him on his tour of the post-Florence wreckage, “That boat is wiped out, or not?”
“Boat looks like it’s okay,” came a response from the gaggle.
“Wouldn’t want to cross the ocean in it,” Trump replied. The crowd laughed. (Trump used to own a yacht himself. It was, at the time, the world’s third-largest and was featured in a James Bond movie. He christened the ship “Trump Princess.”)
Shortly after, a reporter asked him for his thoughts on what he had seen thus far.
“I think it’s incredible; I think it’s incredible,” Trump said. “To see what we’re seeing — this boat, I don’t know what happened, but this boat just came here. And do you know whose boat that is? They don’t know whose boat that is.”
Elsewhere on River Drive, the president chatted with residents who had lost their homes. They told him the storm would displace them, the pool account noted.
One man told Trump he had named his dog after the president (though pool reporters could not confirm whether the dog’s name was Donald, Trump or both).
“That’s nice,” Trump reportedly replied.
During the trip, Trump also visited a church that was distributing meals to the city’s residents. There, he handed out packages of hot dogs and applesauce and told the crowd, “Our hearts break for you. God bless you.”
It wasn’t the president’s first trip to the site of a massive natural disaster.
The deadly 2017 hurricane season afforded Trump several opportunities to travel to storm-torn swaths of the country and address grieving citizens — instead, critics said, he largely kept attention focused on himself.
Addressing a crowd of Texans after Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, Trump marveled at the size of his audience: “What a turnout,” he said then. It was observed that the event felt more like a campaign rally than a sympathy tour.
“There was something missing from what President Trump said … the empathy for the people who suffer,” Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, told Fox News afterward.
Then, in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, Trump infamously tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd at a supply distribution point. The mayor of San Juan said the act was “terrible and abominable.” On the same trip, Trump complained that relief efforts in Puerto Rico had thrown the country’s budget “a little out of whack.”
It turned out this was just the beginning of a hotly contested and roundly criticized response that has continued to spark fresh debate, most recently when Trump again denied the widely accepted Maria-related death toll last week.
Back in North Carolina, during a briefing at a Marine air station there, Trump did seem concerned about one part of the state.
“How is Lake Norman doing?” he asked a local official, according to a pool report, referring to a man-made lake north of Charlotte.
The official assured him the lake was all right.
“I love that area,” Trump responded, according to the pool account. “I can’t tell you why, but I love that area.”
Observers were quick to note one possible explanation for the president’s interest in the area: A Trump National Golf Club is located on the shores of Lake Norman.