David Axelrod: At hurricane briefing, Trump had hosannas for his team -- and by extension, himself -- but left out victims
He says this was Trump's first major test as consoler-in-chief. We saw another dispiriting display of obtuse self-puffery
Editor’s Note: David Axelrod is a CNN commentator and host of the podcast “The Axe Files,” now a regularly featured show on CNN. He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Article Two of the Constitution spells out the official duties of the presidency but not all its responsibilities. One of the essential, unwritten roles of the president has been to act as the consoler-in-chief in moments of crisis and loss, offering support and encouragement to fellow citizens on behalf of a concerned nation.
Reagan after the Challenger explosion; George W. Bush after 9/11; Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and Obama after Charleston.
Hurricane Harvey was Donald Trump’s first major test in that role. Trump flew to Texas on Tuesday to meet with state officials and disaster response coordinators in a moment that called for the empathy and humanity befitting an ongoing, large-scale tragedy. Instead, we witnessed another dispiriting display of obtuse self-puffery.
Seated at a table between Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and first lady Melania Trump, the President launched into a monologue about the epic nature of Harvey – “Nobody’s ever seen anything like this!” – with hosannas to his team - -and by extension, himself – for the job they’re doing in meeting it.
Turning to FEMA Director Brock Long, Trump gushed, “a man who’s really become very famous on television over the last couple of days.” And in wrapping up his remarks, he started to congratulate the group for their proficient handling of the storm, even as Houston and the surrounding region continued to be pounded by rain and floods.
Glimpsing the awkward reaction on the faces around him, the President quickly caught himself, adding, “We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished,” but leaving little doubt that mutual congratulations eventually would be due.
The President then got a short, pro forma briefing for the benefit of the cameras and the group adjourned.
It appears at this juncture that the administration is working well with state authorities to deal with the crisis, at least as much as Harvey’s magnitude allows. Yet, there is another demand the President completely missed.
Startlingly, he did not utter one syllable about those who have lost their lives, their homes or businesses in the floods that are still swelling over southeast Texas, overwhelming the heroic first responders and volunteers who are straining to meet its demands. He had no solace for the tens of thousands of evacuees, some of whom were separated from their families in the storm and are now warehoused in arenas, left to wonder what comes next.
Donald Trump swept into Corpus Christi on Air Force One. Never missing an opportunity to sell, he alighted with his trademarked USA cap atop his thatched dome. It was clear he had come to take a bow, not to offer sympathy for the victims or hope to the dispossessed.
For the ex-reality show star, the scene on TV is everything, and he apparently thought this exercise in praise-claiming amid the misery played “presidential.”
Still, we have witnessed over the past few days many scenes of everyday people, risking their own lives to save their neighbors. These Americans have demonstrated a largeness of spirit and selflessness equal to the moment.
The President has not.
He just doesn’t understand the role.