Trump’s response to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey may have wreaked havoc among thousands of Texans, but it has thrown a political lifeline to Donald Trump, handing him a much-needed opportunity to demonstrate he can play president in a time of national emergency.

The last Republican in the Oval Office, George W. Bush, initially settled for an antiseptic presidential flyover of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans 12 years ago, and was roundly criticized for it. Trump this time around made all the right moves in the current national emergency, rallying the country to a uniform humanitarian effort against nature’s latest attack on millions of its citizens.

In contrast to the Bush’s tardy and seemingly insensitive response to Katrina, Trump responsibly steered clear of the worst of it in Houston while ordering massive federal relief in coordination with state and local rescue officials, without taking undue credit for it.

For once he employed his favorite messaging platform, Twitter, to commend the local first responders, both police and private citizens, in a widespread effort that concentrated on indiscriminately saving lives. He also called on Congress to provide whatever funds were necessary for swift and enduring support to the suffering masses in both Texas and neighboring Louisiana.

At the same time, however, Trump drew strong cynicism for announcing a presidential pardon for Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., and a political ally in his immigration reform campaign, who had been convicted of criminal contempt of court. He announced the pardon late Friday as Harvey began lashing the Texas coast. Critics saw the timing as a very contentious move.

The president also garnered criticism for seeming to lapse at times into his penchant for self-congratulation, boasting of the size of the crowd that gathered in Corpus Christi to hear him as he praised the rescue teams led by his Federal Emergency Management Agency director, Brock Long.

In 2005, President Bush was roundly chided for publicly telling his then FEMA director, Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” Brown was forced to resign 10 days later over his inept performance.

This time, Trump was more cautious at a meeting in a Corpus Christi firehouse with Long and with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. “We won’t say congratulations,” the president remarked. “We don’t want to do that. We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.” Later, Trump allowed himself to observe: “It’s a real team, and we want to do it better than ever before. We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now, this is the way to do it.” As for Long, this media-fixated president called him “a man who has become famous on TV over the last few days,” as if that fact were the highest accolade.

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Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.