HOUSTON — He came to Texas with hugs and smiles. At an evacuation shelter, he hoisted a little girl above his shoulders, got into a scrum with a young boy wielding a plastic sword and pulled on disposable gloves to serve hot dogs. At a church, he called on people to pray and loaded care packages into pickup trucks and minivans.
“It’s good exercise,” he quipped as he lifted boxes of supplies, slapping the side of a truck.
If President Trump’s first visit on Tuesday to flood-ravaged Southeast Texas was all about projecting competence, then his Saturday return was about showing compassion — albeit with a dose of self-congratulation.
The president got to work acting like, well, a president. In a full day of visits with storm survivors and emergency management officials, the president tried to convey empathy and a personal commitment to the long-term recovery of America’s fourth-largest city after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
“They say two years, three years, but I think that because this is Texas you’ll probably do it in six months!” Trump said as he delivered a pep talk of sorts to volunteers at a church in the Houston suburb of Pearland.
Trump’s optimism seemed to belie the far more complicated reality of rebuilding lives here, however. After talking with families who had lost their homes to Harvey’s floodwaters, Trump said he was struck by how “happy” they were.
“We saw a lot of happiness,” Trump said after he and his wife, Melania, toured the NRG Center, a cavernous convention hall transformed into an evacuation center. The first lady, who donned a custom baseball cap that read “TEXAS” on the front and “FLOTUS” on the back, handed out books to displaced children.
“They’re really happy with what’s going on,” the president said of the evacuees.
Making his second visit to the region since Harvey came ashore Aug. 25, Trump toured Houston as well as Lake Charles, La. On his first trip to Texas, Trump focused almost exclusively on the government’s response and stayed out of the disaster zone, in part because the presidential entourage could have interfered with rescue efforts.
In both Houston and Lake Charles, fans lined streets wearing “Make America Great Again” caps and Trump-branded T-shirts, holding up signs. “Texans love stilettos,” read one handmade sign, an apparent message of encouragement to the first lady, who set social media abuzz when she departed Washington for Texas on Tuesday wearing black high heels.
At times, the crowds that showed up to see the first couple felt more like those that assemble at Trump’s political rallies. As the presidential motorcade pulled up to the Louisiana Air National Guard Armory in Lake Charles, some Trump supporters yelled at the press vans, “Fake news!”
Earlier Saturday, inside the Pearland church, Elaine Ybarra, 41, lifted her 10-year-old son Chris to see Trump. “He brings us prayers from around the world,” she said of the power of a presidential visit.
When Trump visited a middle-class neighborhood in the Houston area, where rotted mattresses, drywall and other debris sat piled up on the lawns of ranch houses, Trump told the residents, “These are people that have done a fantastic job holding it together.”
Talking to them in a cul-de-sac, Trump spotted a man in a red “Trump is my president” T-shirt and invited him to come forward for a photo. “You’re going to be famous now,” he told the man.
Alice Stewart, a Republican political consultant, watched Trump’s visit unfold on television and said she thought he “genuinely filled the role of consoler-in-chief.”
“Seeing the president and the first lady serving food, taking selfies, loading vehicles and offering hugs really demonstrated their compassion for those impacted by the storm,” Stewart said. “The optics of the visit are just as important as his actions on relief funds.”
Trump’s assessment of the recovery progress sounded at least slightly out of tune with the news reports coming out of the region. He boasted about floodwaters quickly receding — “the water’s disappearing,” he said — yet many neighborhoods remain uninhabitable.
He touted the $7.9 billion in disaster relief his administration is seeking — “It’s going through a very quick process,” he said — even though it could cost more than $100 billion to rebuild.
The budget Trump proposed, months before Harvey struck, would slash spending across the federal government, including for programs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other departments that are designed to help communities such as those Trump visited on Saturday prepare for natural disasters.
And a couple of weeks before this hurricane, Trump reversed an Obama-era regulation that was designed to make federally funded infrastructure projects in coastal communities less vulnerable to flooding.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said Trump’s past “anti-government rhetoric” makes it difficult for him to come across as authentic after Harvey.
“It is very hard for a president who has so often treated the federal government as his enemy, and who boasts of deliberately failing to fill high-level federal jobs, to suddenly go to suffering people in Texas and assure them that the federal government can effectively help them and he will make sure that it does,” Beschloss said.
Accompanying the Trumps on Saturday were four Cabinet members — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and acting homeland security secretary Elaine Duke — who also mingled with storm victims and relief workers.
Jennifer Palmieri, a longtime Democratic strategist who advised President Barack Obama as he responded to natural disasters, said she does not think Trump fully grasps all of the dimensions at play in the Harvey recovery.
Palmieri mentioned Trump’s looming decision about the status of undocumented immigrants who are brought to the United States as children; the president is planning to announce by Tuesday whether the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will be terminated.
“You can’t be dispensing hugs on Saturday and then rescind DACA for 124,000 Texans on Tuesday,” Palmieri said. “You can’t talk about how ‘happy’ everyone is in shelters and how well the federal efforts are going when the true federal effort in the form of FEMA recovery assistance hasn’t even begun.”
The brief encounters Trump had with storm victims seemed to consist of exchanging pleasantries, smiling for photos and sharing presidential words of encouragement. Trump also talked of his electoral victory, as he often does.
When Trump shook hands with a few uniformed military members at the evacuee shelter in Houston, one of the men told him, “We voted for you.”
“You better,” Trump said playfully. “Who didn’t in your world? Who didn’t?”