In responding to his first natural disasters, President Trump deserves credit where credit is due — but no more than that.
With waters now receding in Houston and Florida, President Donald Trump is emerging from the first domestic crisis of this presidency that is not primarily of his own making. There will be months and years of recovery ahead, but as the acute emergency passes, it’s a good moment to take stock: How does his performance stack up?
In an apparent contradiction, our answer is that Trump both simultaneously failed miserably and also did rather well. A presidency is a complicated mixture of the personality of a single person and a large set of interlocking bureaucracies. The part of the Trump presidency that is represented by those bureaucracies has so far performed admirably, the part represented by Trump’s own personality far less so. Let’s consider separately the distinct metrics of presidential personality and staffing.
Start with the bad news: Trump personally did a crummy job. In the midst of a national emergency that is certain to bring tragic consequences, the president is expected to perform familiar, almost ceremonial roles. He is supposed to project an image of competence and strength. He tells the impacted regions that the nation stands with them, both symbolically and through pledged federal support. This exercise is apolitical, with presidents and governors of both parties rising above partisanship. (President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie famously embraced in the difficult days following Superstorm Sandy — though the image would come to haunt Christie later.) The president is expected to comfort the country. There are countless examples of past presidents, in the requisite casual button-down with sleeves rolled up, comforting the afflicted. Yes, these are often derided as cynical photo opportunities, but the sight of a president helping victims reassures and reminds us that the occupant of our highest office is capable of basic human compassion.
Trump couldn’t even fake it convincingly.
While serving food to the displaced at a shelter in Houston, the president bizarrely returned to the campaign issue of his famously small hands. As Hurricane Harvey approached Houston and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asked for more counties to be included in the disaster declaration, Trump promoted the book of notorious former Sheriff David Clarke, his avid supporter. Trump admitted that he timed the announcement of his highly controversial pardon of another noxious supporter-sheriff, Joe Arpaio, to the hurricane because he “assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.” As Harvey made its third landfall in Louisiana, Trump fumed to his staff about the paltry turnout at a Phoenix rally the week prior. With Hurricane Irma brewing in the Atlantic Ocean, the president couldn’t resist a dig at the press while praising the U.S. Coast Guard for “going into winds that the media would not go into … unless it’s a really good story.” Later, in reflecting on the Coast Guard’s heroic — though hardly unprecedented — efforts, Trump oddly fixated on branding, saying: “If you talk about branding, no brand has improved more than the United States Coast Guard.”
Trump did pledge $1 million of personal funds to Harvey relief efforts. It’s an admirable gesture, though he has a spotty history of following through on his charitable promises. According to the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, none of the designated charities has confirmed that it has received the funds yet.
Furthermore, even as he botched his hurricane response, Trump also neglected other important issues. He has not made any public comments on catastrophic wildfires on the West Coast. He did not reach out to offer condolences to Mexico, which suffered a devastating earthquake last week. America’s southern neighbor had offered to aid in the Harvey relief effort, but after failing to get any U.S. government response and in the face of the Trump administration’s silence about its own tragedy, Mexico withdrew its offer.
But while the boss stumbled, the administration collectively gets high marks — and Trump gets genuine credit for his staff’s performance. Much of emergency management takes place at the state and local levels, but, by all accounts, Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert did good work. They coordinated early federal efforts effectively and communicated clearly with the public. Though Trump’s praise was strange, the Coast Guard did save thousands of lives. And just as Trump must own the failures of the executive branch, he can also rightfully take credit for its successes.
If you doubt that Trump gets kudos for this, consider the negative credit President George W. Bush received for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush was blamed not just for his own conduct but for federal ill-preparedness in general and for the bad performance of FEMA and its director. If the president is blamed when these things go badly, he must also get credit when they go well.
That the federal emergency response has operated effectively so far is not entirely a feature of Trump’s personnel judgment. The people of Houston are fortunate that Long — and not, say, Eric Trump’s wedding planner — happened to be at the helm of FEMA. The president’s penchant for installing unqualified family members and cronies in important government offices was thwarted by legislation with respect to the selection of a FEMA administrator. In response to the catastrophic mismanagement of Katrina by Bush’s underqualified FEMA administrator, Michael Brown, Congress passed a law requiring that any nominee to head FEMA have a “demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management and homeland security” and “not less than 5 years of executive leadership and management experience in the public or private sector.”
A statute requiring that a FEMA director meet minimum qualifications turns out to be a pretty good idea. And Congress should consider this model for other positions, especially those with important responsibility for public safety. The Senate confirmation process is the primary check against woefully underqualified individuals holding high government office. But Democratic and Republican administrations alike have demonstrated this process to be so hopelessly political that it is an unreliable safeguard. There are numerous examples of individuals being Senate confirmed without any relevant background experience in the field and often times that works out OK. The crises averted under an experienced FEMA administrator, however, demonstrate that different rules should govern positions that directly bear on public safety.
Where the confirmation process has failed to preserve basic standards, statutes can sometimes shift the burden back to the White House to submit nominees with baseline qualifications. The FEMA administrator is not the only example. Similar statutes require that the attorney general and solicitor general be “learned in the law.” The undersecretaries of energy for science and nuclear security must have “extensive background” in their respective fields and be “well-qualified to manage” the particular duties of their officers. Statutory requirements can also preserve important norms. In order to preserve the norm of a civilian-controlled military, for example, the National Security Act requires the secretary of defense to not have served in the military in the prior 10 years, though Congress reduced that to seven years in 2008. The Trump administration sought and obtained a waiver for current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who retired from active duty in 2013, demonstrating the capacity for flexibility where prudent.
This approach does risk inviting excessive congressional micromanagement of executive staffing. Moreover, in the case of the president’s close White House aides, who are not subject to confirmation, such limitations would likely be impossible for constitutional reasons. It is a matter of luck — at least when it comes to extreme weather events — that Trump picked Bossert, who had previously served as deputy homeland security advisor to Bush and held prior positions in FEMA. With respect to such White House positions, Congress cannot do much more than simply hope that future presidents see fit to follow suit.
Still, competency and experience are norms worth defending, where possible. And it is well worth identifying those positions that are most critical to public health, safety, and security and that would benefit from minimal statutory qualifications. Who knows? When next Trump gets to bask in the glory of someone else’s job well done, he might even thank Congress for it.
Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images