President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to pardon former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio came at a particularly controversial time. On Friday night, as the massive hurricane that would later make landfall as a Category 4 storm headed toward the Texas coast, Trump chose to make the first pardon of his presidency a man known for the brutal conditions of his jails and accusations of racially profiling Latinos in Arizona.
The decision, which The Post reported was made without consulting the Justice Department, was quickly labeled in media reports as an effort to bury the news – or in this case, drown it – on a Friday evening when most eyes were focused on Hurricane Harvey. And it wasn’t the only contentious news from Friday night, either: The end-of-the-week news also included the exit of adviser Sebastian Gorka, a member of the Stephen Bannon-led nationalist faction of Trump’s White House, as well as the issuance of guidelines for a ban on transgender people serving in the military.
The gush of news was not the leadership optics most people expect from a U.S. president who has a hurricane barreling toward the U.S. coast. A member of his own party sent warning signals to Trump: Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) tweeted that Trump should “keep on top of hurricane Harvey dont mke same mistake Pres Bush made w Katrina.” Some Democrats called out the disconnect explicitly: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted that “the only reason to do these right now is to use the cover of Hurricane Harvey to avoid scrutiny.”
Trump did repeatedly tweet on Friday and Saturday about the storm and the response of federal and local governments to it, announcing he was providing federal aid and closely monitoring the situation. But ti did not erase questions of the timing of the news. As The Post’s Dan Balz wrote Saturday, “at a time when the public would expect the president to stay fully focused on the well-being of people in harm’s way of a powerful storm, he chose to divert the country’s attention by stirring controversy elsewhere.”
There are few moments in a presidency that more clearly test a president’s ability to play the part of the reassuring, focused, prepared leader than when facing an impending national disaster and later responding to it. Hurricanes come with at least some advance warning; they offer an example of the help government leaders can provide and an opportunity to put politics aside and unite the country in response to fellow Americans’ suffering. President Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, as Grassley noted, made a permanent stain on his presidency.
Yet for Trump’s administration, the need for a keenly focused response is even more critical than usual. Trump himself has no prior governing experience handling a national disaster as a governor or mayor. And many relevant agencies for disaster response face a leadership vacuum, The Post reported: The National Hurricane Center is being led by an acting director, there is not yet a nominee to head the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the new director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency only took office in June.
Meanwhile, distractibility has become a hallmark of Trump’s leadership, making it even more important for the White House to have appeared laser-focused amid the encroaching storm. Trump lashes out at critics even when it’s politically inadvisable, commonly veers off script and goes off message, and is often described as being influenced by whomever he spoke with last. Releasing highly controversial news at a time when most would expect all eyes on Texas does little to counter that impression.
It it is too soon to know what kind of impact the Friday night news dump will have on how people ultimately view Trump’s handling of a storm the National Weather Service has described as “beyond anything experienced.” Feet of rain have already fallen, the massive flooding is only expected to worsen, and it will be days before the rain of this record-setting storm ends.
Trump’s focus on the storm has intensified, and on Sunday, he continued tweeting about the historic nature of the storm, saying the “spirit of the people is incredible” and that he would make a trip to Texas as soon as he could “without causing disruption. The focus must be life and safety.” Yet he also tweeted Sunday about Mexico paying for a wall on the southern border (“through reimbursement/other”), NAFTA (“worst trade deal ever made”), a trip to Missouri (which he “won by a lot in ’16”) and a book by Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke (“highly recommended!”).
If the government’s overall response is ultimately deemed ineffective to the historic, catastrophic storm, those distracting Friday night announcements could come back to haunt him. Certainly, people now expect presidents to show up after the storm. But many would also like to see their attention as focused as possible on it before it hits.