President Donald Trump was hunkering in Washington on Thursday as winds from Hurricane Florence began lashing the Carolina coast, his mind split between emergency preparations, long-simmering grievances over the Russia investigation and criticism of a lackluster approach to last year’s storms.
Trump, beleaguered and down in the polls, was hoping to regain an air of confident leadership this week by rendering himself the public face of the response to the looming hurricane, which is due to make landfall early Friday.
To those ends, the President was spending Thursday taking meetings with top emergency management officials, according to aides. Just before 5 p.m. he was seen departing the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following a hurricane briefing from national security officials, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser John Bolton.
He canceled planned campaign rallies in Missouri and Mississippi to tend to the disaster. And he issued a string of messages warning residents of the Carolinas to follow evacuation orders.
Natural disasters can provide presidents, along with governors and local officials, the opportunity to project apolitical muscle. Trump sought to harness that last year during visits to Texas and Florida after storms struck. But extreme weather can also expose an administration’s weaknesses, as Hurricane Katrina did for President George W. Bush in 2005. Trump’s response to Puerto Rico also drew widespread criticism.
Whether or not his efforts this week will help Trump regain some standing remains to be seen. FEMA has been preparing for days, fortified by early forecasts and relatively unchanging storm path projections. The White House said 4,000 federal employees are currently tasked with responding to the storm in various capacities. Resources prepositioned in the storm’s path include 11 million meals, 18 million liters of water, 60,000 cots and 1 million blankets.
But Trump’s fondness for early self-congratulation and political sniping has already led to criticism he’s not taking his role seriously.
“They’re all ready, and we’re getting tremendous accolades from politicians and the people,” Trump boasted on Wednesday from the East Room. “We are ready. But this is going to be one of the biggest ones to ever hit our country.”
In tweets and public remarks, the President has described Florence in hyperbolic terms, warning of its destructive power and drenching rains. He called the storm as “tremendously big and a tremendously wet” during an Oval Office briefing with his FEMA and Homeland Security chiefs on Tuesday. He mused on the awesome power of weather in a short video taped in the Rose Garden earlier in the week.
“Bad things can happen when you’re talking about a storm this size,” he said. “(It’s) called Mother Nature. You never know – but we know.”
On Twitter, the President has adopted a more combative attitude, pushing back against accusations he left Puerto Rico to languish after Hurricane Maria devastated the island last year. Awarding himself “A Pluses” for recovery efforts in Texas and Florida, Trump insisted his administration “did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity.”
A day later, Trump was still aggrieved by criticism of his administration’s response in Puerto Rico, where a government assessment showed the storm claimed nearly 3,000 lives. Trump rejected that figure, claiming instead that only 6 to 18 people had died as a result of the hurricane. And he falsely accused Democrats of elevating the numbers.
“This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” he wrote. “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list.”
Aides earlier this week had worked to focus Trump on the storms, hoping to turn his attention away from the scathing portraits of the administration depicted in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward and in an anonymous op-ed published in The New York Times.
But Trump has demonstrated a split focus. He’s continued to tweet his anger at the Russia investigation and the Justice Department, often citing Fox News.
On Thursday, he lashed out at JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, alleging the banker doesn’t have the “smarts” to be president after Dimon claimed he could best Trump (he backed off almost immediately).
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.