Donald Trump’s decision to be the first big-name U.S. politician to visit Louisiana amid historic flooding turned out to be a savvy one.
The Republican presidential nominee, fresh off the best speech of his 2016 campaign on Thursday night, visited the Baton Rouge area on Friday and successfully drew attention to the unfolding crisis. He even earned praise from a former Democratic senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, who suggested President Obama and Hillary Clinton might want to follow his lead.
And now the White House has announced Obama will indeed travel there next week, and Clinton has called Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for an update.
But even in playing his political cards right and potentially reaping the benefits — perhaps most notably in appearing presidential, something he has struggled with all campaign — Trump couldn’t quite help himself.
During a stop at a church, Trump made clear that this was partially a political trip for him.
“The president says he doesn’t want to come; he is trying to get out of a golf game,” Trump told volunteers in the area.
After a man remarked that Obama might be “under-par while we’re underwater,” Trump responded with a wry smile: “He’ll never be under-par.”
“You represent the interests of the United States of America,” Eric Trump said on Fox News, “and you can’t even be bothered to show up to a natural disaster. It’s really, really sickening.”
— Fox News (@FoxNews) August 19, 2016
Then, late Friday afternoon, the Trump campaign issued a blistering statement criticizing Edwards, who had earlier in the day warned against a Trump “photo-op,” and again highlighting Obama’s absence.
“Today, Donald Trump acted more presidential than the president himself, by immediately going to Louisiana while President Obama chose to continue playing golf and Hillary Clinton phoned in her views,” said Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Trump surrogate.
Look, politics are inescapable in situations like this. And it’s totally fair game for Trump’s team to raise the issue of Obama’s absence from Louisiana as an issue. They clearly thought it was better to visit sooner rather than later, and now Obama is going to visit — five days after Trump.
It was a good move and it paid dividends. But Trump’s mere presence in Louisiana would likely have been enough to deliver the message. It’s not clear why he and his campaign saw the need to raise this issue themselves and risk looking like this was a political ploy. Sometimes it’s best to let others take part in that conversation and not get your own hands dirty. Just showing up says a lot.
(Edwards, for what it’s worth, could probably heed the same advice. Looking like he was prejudging Trump’s trip seemed needlessly political as well.)
Conservatives and Trump backers had already been decrying a media double standard, comparing Obama’s continued vacation on Martha’s Vineyard during the disaster to President Bush’s much-criticized and delayed response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. (Much of the problem back then, of course, was not just with Bush’s absence but with a botched federal response.) This was a conversation that was already happening, and it’s not clear it needed any more prodding from the Trump campaign.
Trump’s trip to Louisiana will still likely be remembered as one of the smarter things he’s done during this campaign. But even in doing it, he and his campaign betrayed their tendency to use a heavy hand as a default.
A big reason Trump’s speech Thursday night in Charlotte worked so well was because it was more subtle and less controversial, while also maintaining some of the appeal that is uniquely Trump. He avoided controversy and projected a more humble, statesmanlike figure.
And to his credit, he continued that with his visit to Louisiana on Friday — while also showing he can’t completely take his foot off the gas.