HOUSTON (AP) — President Donald Trump cupped a boy’s face in his hands and then gave him a high-five. He lifted a girl into his arms to give her a kiss. He snapped on latex gloves to hand out boxed lunches of hot dogs and potato chips.
On his visit to a shelter for storm victims Saturday, the president declared he sees “a lot of love” in the wake of devastation left by Harvey.
“We saw a lot of happiness,” he told reporters after he and first lady Melania Trump greeted children in the kids’ zone in NRG Center, an emergency refuge for people who were forced out of their homes. “As tough as this was, it’s been a wonderful thing.”
It was his second trip to Texas in a week, and this time his first order of business was to meet with those affected by the record-setting rainfall and flooding. He’s also set to survey some of the damage and head to Lake Charles, Louisiana, another hard-hit area.
That interaction was missing from Tuesday’s trip to Texas, which was criticized as being off-key for a presidential visit to discuss communities in crisis.
In Corpus Christi and Austin, Trump sat with emergency responders and officials who were coordinating recovery efforts with his administration. The event was marked by Trump’s impromptu speech to supporters outside a Corpus Christi firehouse — “What a crowd, what a turnout,” he said — instead of images of the president consoling victims or walking among the damage caused by the storm.
Trump at that time kept his distance from the epicenter of the damage, in Houston, to avoid disrupting recovery operations. Still, critics said he failed to adequately express compassion for the families of those killed in the storm’s path or those whose homes were flooded. He raised eyebrows when he predicted his approach would be a model for future presidents to emulate.
“We want to do it better than ever before,” he said. “We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, ‘This is the way to do it.'”
“There was a lot of high-fiving about how well this disaster was being handled even as people were on their rooftops hoping to be rescued,” said David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Barack Obama. “People need to know that their president is emotionally engaged in their struggle, and part of the obligation or the responsibility of a president, particularly in a media age, is to make that human connection.”
Trump later voiced more direct concern for those caught up in the storm. At the start of a speech in Missouri on Wednesday, he said the nation was praying for those in Harvey’s path and “we are here with you every single step of the way.”
The president reiterated that support in a tweet as he rode to the NRG Center in Houston on Saturday. At the site, he called the federal, state and local response to the disaster “fantastic.”
“I think people appreciate what’s been done,” he said. “It’s been done very efficiently, very well. And that’s what we want.”
More than 17,000 people have sought refuge in Texas shelters, the American Red Cross said earlier this week. NRG Center opened Tuesday, one of a few mega-shelters housing hundreds of displaced people.
Joining Trump on Saturday are four Cabinet secretaries and other administration officials, including Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Trump may take cues from Vice President Mike Pence, who went to a damaged church, cleared away tree limbs and debris, and hugged storm victims during a visit to Texas this past week.
“All American hearts are with the people of Texas and Louisiana,” Trump said in his weekly radio address aired Saturday. He described “a spirit of love, determination and resolve” that he said he sensed during the Tuesday visit.
On Friday, Trump met with evangelical leaders to promote his proclamation of Sunday as a national day of prayer for those affected by the storm, along with relief organizations heavily involved in the recovery.
“I’m confident that this will be an opportunity for the president, on behalf of the entire nation, to show compassion and empathy for those who have lost homes and have had their lives interrupted and in some cases have lost loved ones,” said Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. He was among the evangelical leaders who met with the president.
Trump has sent lawmakers an initial request for a $7.9 billion down payment toward Harvey relief and recovery efforts — a request expected to be swiftly approved by Congress, which returns to work Tuesday after its summer break.
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