President Donald Trump tempted fate and nature by declining to cancel an optically risky campaign rally and fundraiser even as the most powerful hurricane in a quarter century thrashed across the Florida Panhandle.
The President flew north to Erie, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday, while the 150 mph winds of Hurricane Michael raged 1,000 miles to the south, as part of his blitz of key battlegrounds ahead of the midterm elections.
He did take care to create some political cover for his trip, holding an Oval Office briefing with federal officials and calling state leaders before he left.
At the top of his rally, Trump sent “thoughts and prayers of our entire nation to everyone in the path of Hurricane Michael, especially in the Florida Panhandle, where it’s hitting and hitting hard.” He said the government would follow “right behind” the storm with food, water and an operation to re-establish electrical power.
But on arriving in Erie, he seemed as fixated by a more than 800-point plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average as by the storm, slamming central bankers for their monetary tightening policies, which he said had precipitated the correction.
“The Fed’s gone crazy,” Trump said.
Operationally, there’s not much more the President can do to deal with a storm at home in the White House than aboard Air Force One or on the road. The vast infrastructure set up when he travels means he can operate just as easily while he’s away as he can at the White House.
But ever since George W. Bush peered from the windows of the presidential jet at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, commanders in chief have understood that getting the politics of storm season right is crucial.
Behaving in an overtly political way when Americans are in peril or appearing to not focus exclusively on coordinating federal, state and government agencies is often seen as a pointless risk that offers an opening to critics.
That’s one reason why the Republican Party canceled the first day of its nominating convention in 2008 after Bush nixed an opening night appearance to oversee the handling of Hurricane Gustav.
And President Barack Obama’s purported move to put politics on hold during Hurricane Sandy — while of course seizing the chance to show leadership — late in his duel with Mitt Romney helped cap the 2012 election.
Trump the rule breaker
Trump has broken most presidential conventions and political rules, so it’s not all that surprising he chose to go out on the campaign trail at a time when any other president would probably have made a show of staying home.
He reasoned that he didn’t want to disappoint supporters who he said had been lining up hours before the start of the rally.
“We have thousands of people lined up, so we wanted to make this stop,” Trump told reporters at Erie’s airport.
“So we’re going to do that and we have a lot of happy people,” he said.
A GOP source involved in the fundraising event for Pennsylvania Senate candidate Lou Barletta told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny that Trump had been urged not to cancel, as — with the midterm elections less than four weeks away — time is running short to reschedule an appearance by the President.
Trump did not say it, but it’s obvious — especially since he’s been on a political roll in recent weeks with a booming economy and the confirmation of his second Supreme Court pick — that he loves the trail.
Another night onstage may have been too much to give up.
Still, sometimes Presidents have to disappoint supporters and themselves in the service of wider national interests. Should it later emerge that Americans in Florida were losing their lives or in great danger while he was onstage slamming “radical” Democrats and mocking the #MeToo movement, his behavior might later seem distasteful.
But even then, he might not pay a political price — given his legendary capacity to steer away from gaffes and disasters that would have destroyed any other politician’s career years ago.
Trump also knows that many of those at most risk from Michael come from some of the most fertile areas of Trump country — where a massive turnout helped him overturn expectations in the Sunshine State in 2016.
So among the people most affected by the storm, he’s unlikely to face a backlash.
And given the power of the conservative media machine, it’s unlikely that if Trump did deserve blame for a Katrina-style debacle, he would face the kind of bipartisan disdain for the government’s performance that was visited on Bush.
It might be argued that Trump has already faced his Katrina moment, and with his skill at shaping alternative realities has managed to escape serious political damage.
The President, after all, spent much of the time when Hurricane Florence was bearing down on South Carolina last month blasting academic studies that found the death toll from Hurricane Maria’s sweep across Puerto Rico last year was far higher than had been previously reported — at nearly 3,000.
And while his behavior outraged critics on the island and the mainland, and seemed in poor taste, his political base appeared to insulate him, as usual. Trump’s approval rating in the latest CNN poll this week is 41% — in the same range where it always is.
Still, Trump and fellow Republicans are in trouble running into the midterms, and a days-long controversy over the President’s handling of the hurricane would be unwelcome for GOP bosses. It could especially hurt Republican House members in tough districts already sinking under the President’s unpopularity.
That’s why most presidents would have stayed at home.
But Trump is different, lives more in the moment than most commanders in chief and appears to have deep confidence in his capacity to weather and tame controversies, especially those of his own making.