What will it take for Donald Trump to pass “the test”?
With the president and first lady arriving in Texas today, will the journalists who questioned whether Trump could handle Hurricane Harvey at least give him credit for showing compassion?
He is, at the very least, avoiding the symbolic mistake of George W. Bush in flying over New Orleans after Katrina. (Bush later admitted this was a “huge mistake” that made him look “detached and uncaring.”)
While Harvey’s catastrophic flooding is overwhelming authorities in Houston, Trump hasn’t made any significant missteps so far. He held video conferences with senior officials from Camp David--with the White House sending out pictures to create an image of control.
Virtually every mainstream media outlet has been touting the hurricane as the first natural disaster test for Trump, often rooted in an assumption that a guy with no government experience has no idea how to deal with this. And it’s early in the process. If FEMA screws up, the president will rightly be criticized. But let’s not jump the gun.
The real test, in my view, for a president who’s been at war with both parties, is for him to pull together a Texas aid package on the Hill, because staggering amounts of money are going to be needed to rebuild these areas in the coming months and years. And in past battles over Katrina and Sandy, some Republicans have argued against federal disaster aid without offsetting spending cuts.
But as the hurricane drama plays out, the media are pursuing a parallel story line about Trump becoming more isolated within his administration.
(Interesting aside: The press is free to cover political controversies as the hurricane damage mounts, but if Trump, amid a series of Harvey messages, tweets about having won Missouri before visiting the state, some critics say aha, he doesn’t care!)
Axios reports that the president is getting fed up with Rex Tillerson, a narrative that was fueled when the secretary of State spoke about “the American people’s values” on “Fox News Sunday.”
When Chris Wallace said, “And the president’s values?”, Tillerson replied: “The president speaks for himself.”
Pundits are coupling this with the fallout from chief economic adviser Gary Cohn speaking out against Trump’s handling of Charlottesville.
At the same time, the media are increasingly focused on what the Wall Street Journal editorial page calls Trump’s “divorce” from the GOP Congress. For example, Trump took a Twitter shot at Bob Corker after the Tennessee senator said he hadn’t yet demonstrated the “stability” or “competence” to be successful.
And Republicans such as Paul Ryan and John McCain are criticizing Trump’s during-the-hurricane pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.
One thing is clear: Trump, as always, puts himself in the eye of the storm. And that may be his real test, long after the Houston floodwaters have receded.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.