With nearly one in four homes in the Florida Keys destroyed, up to 15 million Floridians without power, and upwards of $150 billion dollars in estimated damage in Texas, the devastation wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma dominated Trump's agenda in September, as the chaos-loving Commander-in-Chief faced the first natural disasters of his presidency with uncharacteristic grace.
"This is the longest time that Donald Trump has not been the lead story in the news since he became President," Matthew Hale, an Assistant Professor at Seton Hall University, tells Bustle. "He's part of the story, but not the lead story, and frankly, that's probably a good thing for Donald Trump."
"He does not want people arguing over disaster relief... He just wants calm. But that could blow up tomorrow."
That's not to say there's been a shortage of news out of Washington since two massive storms lashed the southern states: Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a plan to end DACA, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos took steps toward dismantling campus sexual assault protections, and Trump celebrated a deal with Democrats to send funding to Harvey victims while averting the near-term threat of a government shutdown. But as storms hovered over Texas and Florida, political analysts say, a cloud may have lifted from over the White House.
"I think right now he's made the calculation that he does not want people arguing over disaster relief. He does not want people arguing over the debt ceiling. He just wants calm. But that could blow up tomorrow," Hale says. "I think one of the things that we struggle with is trying to predict his consistency."
Trump's approval rating has ticked upwards slightly since hitting an all-time low in mid-August after the President equivocated over blaming white supremacists for violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump doubled-down on that take during a fiery, campaign-style speech in Arizona days later, and further inflamed critics by pardoning the state's controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio. But on a visit to storm-ravaged Texas, Trump served hot meals to hurricane victims and hugged children in a shelter.
"I think the recovery will be another opportunity for him to define himself as either somebody who can accomplish more than other people expect of him, or whether it's politics as usual, more of the partisan rancor that materializes," Krista Jenkins, Director Fairleigh Dickinson University's Survey Research Center, says.
"To stand in a hurricane and say 'wow what a terrific crowd,' that's just asinine."
For much of his career, Trump has defined himself as a powerhouse developer who turned his father's real estate business into an empire. His experience managing his family's apartment buildings in New York came to mind as the storm battered homes in Texas.
"Water damage is the worst," Trump reportedly told one staffer at Camp David. "Tough, tough, tough."
On Twitter, the President fixated on Harvey's size and scope as well as the massive federal response effort it necessitated. "Many people are now saying that this is the worst storm/hurricane that they have ever seen" Trump tweeted as Harvey raged. An hour later: "WOW — now experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500 year flood!" Later that evening: "HISTORIC rainfall in Houston, and all over Texas. Floods are unprecedented, and more rain coming. Spirit of the people is incredible.Thanks!" In a meeting with FEMA Administrator Brock Long, state and local elected leaders and relief organizations in Corpus Christi, Trump said he wanted the federal government's response to Harvey to be "better than ever before. ...We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it."
But after being criticized for boasting about the size of crowds that gathered to cheer him as he met with administration officials on his first trip to Texas, Trump took a different approach during the days that followed.
"To stand in a hurricane and say 'wow what a terrific crowd,' that's just asinine. That he would use this just as sort of like, look at all of these people who love me — that's not what a disaster zone is supposed to be," Hale says, reflecting on former President George W. Bush's emotional speech from the rubble at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks. Critics seized on Trump for promoting his own campaign merchandise as he and Melania wore Trump-branded items repeatedly during their relief trips.
"Mike Pence looked like he belonged clearing brush. Trump looked like he was completely uncomfortable. ...It looked awkward when [Trump] was pretending to serve food in a shelter," Hale says. "Melania wore six-inch stiletto heels."
When the First Lady boarded Air Force One en route to survey storm damage, critics seized on her wardrobe choice as out-of-touch. "What Not to Wear to a natural disaster," Vanity Fair quipped. From the Washington Post:
It was also an image that suggested that Trump is the kind of woman who refuses to pretend that her feet will, at any point, ever be immersed in cold, muddy, bacteria-infested Texas water. She is the kind of woman who may listen empathetically to your pain, but she knows that you know that she is not going to experience it. So why pretend?
The Trumps recalculated more than choice of footwear in subsequent trips. "I think in Irma he didn't do that. He sort of stood back and said, we should take care of what we can take care of," Hale says.
Brock Long, the administration's pick to lead FEMA, has been roundly praised for his experience in federal emergency management, and as the twelfth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina passed under Harvey's watch, Long drew favorable comparisons to Michael Brown, the embattled head of FEMA under George Bush.
"I think these disasters have taken a little bit of a spotlight off the White House and Trump's outrageous comments and failings."
"It doesn't feel like Katrina did, or even like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, [when] for many reasons, Bush and Obama got a black eye in the public responses to those," Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics tells Bustle. "I don't feel that way with Trump."
"I think these disasters have taken a little bit of a spotlight off the White House and Trump's outrageous comments and failings, etcetera. I don't think that Trump has necessarily been damaged by the response to these disasters in a political sense," Kondick says, adding, "who knows how these things may develop."
As a candidate, Trump corralled voters around his promise to cut taxes, which he said would lead to greater economic growth. Now, Trump is linking his tax reform ambitions with funding for storm recovery — essentially arguing that a boost to the economy from tax reform will help devastated areas bounce back.
"With Irma and Harvey devastation, Tax Cuts and Tax Reform is needed more than ever before. Go Congress, go!" Trump tweeted.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer doubted the connection between the two issues, saying, "With all due respect to the president, a tax cut, particularly one for the very wealthy, is not going to help Florida or Texas rebuild from these storms." Economic analysts questioned the President's leverage, pointing out that the next installment of federal dollars for storm relief will come due long before Congress unveils a tax plan.
The White House is holding a string of meetings aimed at spurring its legislative agenda, including a sit-down with a bipartisan group of moderate lawmakers Wednesday (including Sen. Schumer & House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) while the President is scheduled to assess storm damage on a visit to Florida Thursday. Only time will tell if he can parlay Congress' goodwill into a legislative victory, or if this calculated push will bring on another storm of controversy.