Floods, hurricanes, mass shootings, civil unrest or earthquakes, visiting disaster areas is de rigueur for presidents these days. These political pilgrimages are highly orchestrated, often comforting to the victims and fraught with potential land mines for the president, whoever it is.
Although the White House has not yet said whether President Trump will visit California to survey the devastation of these current wildfires, it seems likely he’ll be here eventually.
The question is: How would deep-blue California, which gave Hillary Clinton 4.3 million more votes than Trump, react to his first visit as president of the United States?
“When it comes to these types of disasters, everyone’s on their best behavior,” said Dan Schnur, a former communications adviser to Gov. Pete Wilson.
“Even the most rabid partisans tend to put their policy and ideological differences aside until the flames are out. Voters don’t like to watch bickering politicians even under the best of circumstances, but when lives are at stake it’s especially inappropriate.”
As governor, Wilson had to manage disasters, including the 1994 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake. Schnur says it’s a mistake for any politician to try to “spin” a disaster or take advantage of it and try to win over voters who disagree with you.
“You can appreciate and respect the way a politician handles these challenges,” Schnur notes, “but that’s not going to magically change deep-seeded philosophical and ideological differences. What it can do is cause voters to take a second look.”
If it goes well, that is.
President George W. Bush never quite lived down his response to Katrina, where he was photographed looking detached as Air Force One flew over New Orleans and later telling FEMA Director Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” even as the crisis mounted and spun out of control.
President Trump got generally good marks for his handling of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. There, he mostly kept to a script.
Not so in Puerto Rico, where images of him tossing out rolls of paper towels and telling victims that Puerto Rico had “thrown our budget a little out of whack” because of all the money the U.S. was spending, added to his image as being empathy-challenged.
Pres. Trump tosses paper towel rolls, distributes other supplies to hurricane victims during his Puerto Rico visit https://t.co/UAjQrpyToV https://t.co/8IAj5F5OKH
“You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,” notes Republican consultant Sean Walsh, who worked in the White House press operation under President George H. W. Bush.
“One of the hardest things to do is to gauge what is the best time to come out,” Walsh said. “A presidential trip involves massive amounts of logistics — helicopters, Secret Service, local police departments.” Coming to a disaster zone too soon, he adds, just diverts essential resources.
“If I were advising the president,” Walsh said, “my counsel would be to let the situation stabilize a little bit and then I would say go to California — go see Jerry Brown.”
For those partisan Democrats who can’t stomach the notion of Trump visiting under any circumstances, Schnur notes how the political pendulum swings.
“There will be Californians who don’t want Trump here even for something like this, just as some in deep-red states didn’t want President Obama to visit under similar circumstances,” Schnur said. “At a certain point, just as politicians should put aside partisanship during a crisis, so should voters.”
The California Nurses Association is one of the most effective organizers of political protests. CNA spokesman Chuck Idelson declined to say whether his group would use a California visit by Trump to make a political statement, adding “even though we view him as a disaster.”
“If Trump’s coming here, someone needs to challenge him on his climate denial, backing out of the Paris agreement and having an EPA director at war with the planet,” Idelson said, noting climate change is contributing to the hot, dry conditions that are fueling wildfires.
“Everyone should be optimizing for helping people and appealing to their better angels,” says Democratic communications consultant Chris Lehane. He adds that Trump has not always followed that script, a challenge for the president’s staff.
“For example, and I am serious here, his handlers should make sure that if and when asked about how Napa wines compare to his wines, he should exclusively focus on what the feds will be doing to help people,” Lehane said. “There are some issues that he may confront and that could be a real challenge if he does not focus on the playbook.”
No one has been more critical of Trump’s policies — especially on climate change — than Gov. Jerry Brown. But he’s also been careful to keep lines of communication with the White House open.
Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the governor was heartened by assistance California has gotten so far from FEMA and the U.S. military, and by the president’s disaster declaration Tuesday.
“We welcome all federal engagement and support in a time like this,” Westrup stressed. “That said, our primary focus right now — with fires still threatening communities — is on getting resources where they’re needed most, not pulling them away for photo ops.”