WASHINGTON (AP) — The politics of natural disasters can be tricky for a president.
Long before President Donald Trump tossed paper towels to storm-stricken Puerto Ricans and denied Hurricane Maria’s official death toll, his predecessors struggled to steer the nation through life-and-death emergencies.
To project empathy without looking weak. To show both command and cooperation. To put the focus on victims — but provide leadership, too.
A look at how presidents have grappled with the challenges and opportunities of disaster politics:
Trump is not known for shows of empathy and relishes fights he thinks will resonate with his core supporters.
That includes a bitter and lasting brawl with Puerto Rico in the year since the U.S. territory was devastated by Hurricane Maria. He also has grappled with getting it right in ruby-red Texas and Louisiana after Hurricane Harvey, which dumped nearly 50 inches of rain near Houston.
Trump’s first post-Harvey trip to Texas generated blowback for his failure to meet with victims of the storm. Four days later, he returned — and urged people at a Houston shelter to “have a good time.” He also cheered on volunteers and emergency workers and handed out hot dogs and potato chips to residents. Some critics said the president’s trip took on the tone of a victory lap for successful disaster management.
Trump has had trouble keeping facts right about the devastating storms under his watch.
In June, Trump said on a conference call that the Coast Guard had saved thousands of people while Houston was under water, including what he suggested were hurricane gawkers. “People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane. That didn’t work out too well,” the president said. There is no indication the Coast Guard rescued foolhardy storm watchers drifting off the Texas coast.
Then there’s Puerto Rico, flattened by Maria as a Category 4 storm nearly a year ago. Trump pumped two fists in the air when he landed in San Juan last October. The enduring image was of Trump at a San Juan church lobbing paper towels into the crowd as if shooting baskets. At the time, it seemed to reflect Trump’s brand of playfulness. Many people in the crowd smiled and raised their phones to record the moment. But critics quickly dubbed it inappropriate for the massive, grim crisis at hand.
A year later, the official death toll from the storm stands at 2,975. Even as Hurricane Florence approached the Carolinas this week, Trump rejected that count and griped that it’s the product of Democrats trying to make him “look bad.” He also tweeted that San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a frequent Trump critic, is “incompetent.”
“The victims of Puerto Rico and the people of Puerto Rico in general do not deserve to be questioned about their pain,” said Gov. Ricardo Rossello.
On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and became the costliest storm in U.S. history behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie invited Democratic President Barack Obama to view the storm damage, and when the president arrived, the two shared a friendly, widely photographed greeting. At one point, as the two shook hands, Obama put his left hand on Christie’s right shoulder. The resulting image was derided by some conservatives as a “hug” — and a potential re-election boost for Obama when he was being challenged by Republican Mitt Romney.
The storm is blamed for 182 deaths and cost about $70 billion in New Jersey and New York.
It was one of several natural disasters that gave Obama the opportunity to play the traditional role of comforter-in-chief.
A year earlier, a tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri, with winds up to 250 mph and claimed at least 159 lives. Obama visited the moonscape of rubble and tree stumps, and delivered an emotional memorial service speech in which he told the stories of heroic efforts by individuals during the storm.
“It’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place,” Obama told the crowd.
President George W. Bush, praised for his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, stumbled during what proved to be the government’s inadequate response to deadly Hurricane Katrina four years later.
Heading back to Washington after nearly a month on his ranch, Bush had Air Force One fly over part of the devastation, giving him a view of it from high above. The moment was preserved in photographs and generated criticism that he didn’t come in person.
“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he told FEMA Director Michael Brown, three days after Katrina flooded New Orleans. The storm left 1,800 people dead and caused $151 billion dollars in damage. Much public blame went to the Bush administration for a too-slow response.
Together, the vacation, the high-altitude tour and Bush’s “Brownie moment” left a lasting impression that the president had been detached from the tragedy on the ground.
In his 2010 book “Decision Points,” the former president reflected on his mistakes during Hurricane Katrina, writing that he should have urged the evacuation of New Orleans sooner, visited sooner and shown more empathy.
Bill Clinton, who famously claimed during the 1992 campaign “I feel your pain,” was a natural at connecting with disaster victims. As president, he visited Des Moines, Iowa, the next year to examine flood damage in the region. He shook hands with people who had lost their homes as well as National Guard troops.
During a visit to a water distribution center, a woman can be heard in footage preserved by C-SPAN telling him, “My house was flooded.”
“I’m so sorry,” Clinton replied.
A weeping woman in pink with a blue small cooler in her hand told Clinton, “My parents lost their home and I have not been home for like a week. I can’t take it anymore.”
He draped an arm around her and said, “Hang in there.”
Follow Kellman on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman
On Politics: Democrats Continue to Gain as More Midterm Races Are Finalized
Good Wednesday morning. Here are some of the stories making news in Washington and politics today.
• What seemed like a mixed midterm result for the G.O.P. has turned more grim as Democrats continue to pick up seats in the House and narrow the Republican hold on the Senate. Read about the stronger Democratic gains.
• President Trump is considering firing Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security who has long been a target of the president’s displeasure, according to three people close to him. Read about the staff shake-up.
• There were conflicting reports on Tuesday on whether Mira Ricardel, a deputy national security adviser, had been fired. But there is no question that the first lady, Melania Trump, no longer wants her at the White House.
• Mr. Trump issued a blistering personal attack against President Emmanuel Macron of France, and sought to defend his decision not to visit a cemetery of American soldiers while in France because of rain. Read more on his comments.
• With a recount underway in the Florida governor’s race, Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee, is back on the campaign trail a week after conceding the election. Though the outcome is unlikely to change, Mr. Gillum has made it clear he is not going away.
• Representative Kyrsten Sinema’s victory marked the first time a Democrat has been elected to the Senate from Arizona since 1988. Read more about Ms. Sinema, and here are six takeaways from her historic race.
• On an otherwise bleak election night for North Dakota Democrats, Ruth Buffalo became the first Native American Democrat elected to the state legislature, unseating the architect of the very law tribes had feared would disenfranchise them.
• As freshman orientation for new members of Congress began, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez led activists in a protest in Nancy Pelosi’s office. The move is an early notice to Democratic leaders that the new House may be divided.
• Despite a dismal election last week, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California looks set to become House minority leader. Read more about Mr. McCarthy — and his chances of securing the new role.
• For weeks before the midterms, Mr. Trump warned ominously about the threat from a caravan of migrants streaming toward the United States border. But only a week after the election, he has dropped the issue almost entirely.
• An independent bipartisan commission concluded in a sharply critical report that strained forces and budget shortfalls have cast doubt on the Pentagon’s strategy to confront global threats, in a challenge to Mr. Trump’s commitment to support a strong military.
• Mr. Trump’s trade war is stoking an internal fight among his top economic advisers, with officials sparring over the White House’s approach to dealing with China and other trading partners. Here’s more on the feuding.
Today’s On Politics briefing was compiled by Margaret Kramer in New York.
Check back later for On Politics With Lisa Lerer, a nightly newsletter exploring the people, issues and ideas reshaping the political world.
Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brexit deal: Tory ministers meet to decide fate of agreement – Politics live
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The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: Putting on Ayers
Today in 5 Lines
President Donald Trump is reportedly considering replacements for several senior-level administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Chief of Staff John Kelly. One name being floated as Kelly’s replacement is Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s current chief of staff.
CNN filed a lawsuit against Trump and several White House aides, after the administration suspended CNN journalist Jim Acosta’s press pass last week.
Trump named Neomi Rao, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, to fill the seat vacated by Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Hate crimes in America increased by 17 percent last year, even while overall violent crime fell very slightly, according to newly released data from the FBI.
At least 44 people are dead, and more than 200 people are still missing, as the Camp Fire—now the most destructive fire in California history—continues to blaze through the northern part of the state.
Today on The Atlantic
This Is a Problem: President Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week. The move is unconstitutional, argues former deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo.
‘A New Kind of Centrism’: Even though they had some high-profile losses, progressives still see last week’s midterms as a victory for progressive thinking. (Elaine Godfrey)
Young and Blue: The House of Representatives is an “unfriendly environment for rising talent,” reports Elaina Plott. Why is it so hard for young Democrats to get leadership roles there?
Doomed Policies: President Trump reportedly plans to fire Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen for weak enforcement of his immigration policies. But Nielsen isn’t the reason why they’re failing, writes David A. Graham.
Becoming Michelle Obama: The former first lady’s new memoir is a strikingly intimate look at life as a political spouse. (Hannah Giorgis)
What We’re Reading
Oops: A poorly designed ballot might have swayed the midterm elections in Florida. Here’s how. (Dana Chisnell and Whitney Quesenbery, The Washington Post)
Bigger Than They Thought: With all the votes counted, the Democrats had a larger win this year than Republicans did in 2010. (Matthew Yglesias, Vox)
A New American Revolution: Revolutions have always shaped American society, starting in 1776. In 2018, the left has tried to stage a new revolution—one modern America doesn’t need, argues Victor Davis Hanson. (The National Review)
Mapping Fire: California’s wildfires are still raging. Keep track of them. (Lauren Tierney, Laris Karklis, and Tim Meko, The Washington Post)
We’re always looking for ways to improve The Politics & Policy Daily. Concerns, comments, questions, typos? Let us know anytime here.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.
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