Trump's critics warn he's about to have a Katrina moment
"This is tough stuff," he said
You know a president is in trouble when he has to insist he’s up to the job.
But stung by a worsening post hurricane crisis in Puerto Rico, an escalating North Korea nuclear showdown, the humiliating failure to repeal Obamacare and the stunning defeat of his favored candidate in Alabama’s Republican primary, that moment has arrived for Donald Trump.
The President is being forced to deny that his Twitter blasts and culture war shots at NFL players protesting racial grievances show that he’s too distracted to lead amid creating political storms.
“I’ve heard that before, about was I preoccupied? Not at all, not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work,” said Trump, when asked at a Rose Garden news conference whether his feud with NFL players had caused him to take his eye off the ball over the fast worsening hurricane crisis in Puerto Rico.
Given the magnitude of issues he’s facing, it was not surprising that Trump sometimes seemed to be flailing Tuesday, a day of upheaval that served as a microcosm of his turbulent eight months in power that has delighted his fans but rocked much of the rest of the nation and the world.
History shows that any hints of incompetence at a time of national security crisis can deal a devastating blow to a presidency. A sense that a White House is powerless, meanwhile, to control the political winds of Washington can be equally as damaging – especially when a commander-in-chief is as polarizing as Trump.
But the President, while flashing characteristic defiance, also showed hints of political self-awareness suggesting he understands the gravity of his political plight as intense pressures bear down on his White House.
This White House, for all the loyalty of Trump’s fervent political base, could soon find itself facing up to any of these realities if it allows the myriad crisis facing the President to spin any further out of control.
Trump’s critics, for instance, warn he’s about to have a Katrina moment – as questions mount over his handling of the Hurricane Maria disaster, as the desperate plight of Puerto Rican citizens begins to emerge.
At the same time, he’s taking the world closer to the brink with North Korea, exacerbating a nuclear crisis with no clear face saving exit for himself or dictator Kim Jong Un.
And he took another blow on the chin on Tuesday night, when his favored candidate lost Alabama’s Republican Senate primary to Roy Moore, an iconoclast who showed up to vote on horseback and who makes his own theatrics seem tame.
Trump’s administration and fellow Republicans meanwhile are staggering from yet another failure to use their monopoly on power to repeal Obamacare.
And quietly, the Russia investigation, which has haunted the Trump presidency, marched on Tuesday, when it emerged that top White House officials face questioning from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe in the coming days.
The most immediate political threat to the White House is posed by the situation in Puerto Rico, with the island facing power blackouts, water and food shortages, and with its infrastructure of hospitals and basic services dark.
If things get worse fast, the President may come to rue the self-congratulatory moment he created on Tuesday.
“As far as Puerto Rico is concerned … we have had tremendous reviews from government officials, as we have in Texas and Louisiana,” Trump told reporters.
“And this morning, the governor made incredible statements about how well we’re doing,” Trump said.
His search for personal praise was characteristic, as was his effort Monday night in a tweet to pass blame for the island’s current plight as he bemoaned its old infrastructure and debts.
Trump did make the valid point that rushing hurricane relief to an island was a tougher proposition than relieving Texas and Florida after their recent monster storms.
“This is, you know, a thing called the Atlantic Ocean. This is tough stuff,” he said.
But the administration’s frenetic activity Tuesday showed that it understands that if it does not get a handle on the situation quickly, Trump’s response risks looking too small for the crisis.
“If the President doesn’t grasp the severity of the situation this is going to be his legacy,” Democratic Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York warned. “This is the most powerful country in the world, and this is how we treat our citizens? Shame on us.”
As pressure mounted, the White House released pictures of Trump in a Situation Room meeting on the crisis. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and FEMA administrator William Brock appeared outside the West Wing to hurriedly brief reporters on the progress of the relief effort.
Trump meanwhile announced he would go to Puerto Rico next Tuesday.
As he grappled with the rising recriminations of the hurricane, Trump also had to defend his handling of the standoff with North Korea, as critics warn that his bellicosity is making the situation worse.
Again, Trump defended himself and blamed others.
Despite last week vowing to “totally destroy” North Korea if it kept threatening the US and its allies, and warning its leaders would not last long in a weekend tweet, Trump said Kim’s behavior not his own, was to blame for soaring tensions.
“He’s acting very badly. He’s saying things that should never, ever be said. And we’re replying to those things, but it’s a reply. It’s not an original statement, it’s a reply,” Trump said.
The President also slammed previous administrations for leaving him a “mess” with North Korea.
But Trump also reprised the bombastic rhetoric that is worrying US allies and key players in the crisis like China and Russia.
“If we take that option, it will be devastating – I can tell you that – devastating for North Korea. That’s called the military option. If we have to take it, we will.”
Trump is also dealing with his failure to rack up a single major legislative achievement. His misfire has raised questions about his own capacity to shepherd major agenda items into law.
News that Republican senators would not vote on the latest last ditch bid to repeal Obamacare this week broke during Trump’s news conference.
The President has spent days raging at GOP lawmakers for their repeated failures to send him a bill. In a private dinner with conservative leaders on Monday, he fulminated at John McCain, one of the no votes who helped doom the bill.
The Obamacare failure also means it is even more important for Republicans to carve out a win as they now turn to tax reform this week.
But disarray in the party he leads has some wondering whether Republicans will be able ever to unite as a block to secure the kind of wins that Trump promised his supporters he would be tired of by now.
The multiple challenges bearing down on his administration help explain why Trump is showing such relish in prosecuting his feud with the NFL.
As he battles to persevere his relevance in Washington, the President needs his loyal political base more than ever.
That’s especially true because he’s contemplating a deal with Democrats on protections for young immigrants to follow his debt ceiling agreement with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer – not to mention his backing for the establishment candidate in Alabama, Luther Strange.
So wrapping himself in the flag – and tweaking racial tensions – makes political sense and shows why he thinks it’s worth obsessing over, despite everything else that’s going on.
“I wasn’t preoccupied with the NFL. I was ashamed of what was taking place,” he said. “Because to me, that was a very important moment.”