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Week In Politics: The Government's Response To Hurricane Harvey

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Natural disasters can be an opportunity for presidents to show their compassion and leadership. They can also be a political minefield if the people affected end up feeling like the government's response wasn't enough. To talk about that and more in the week in politics, we are joined by David Brooks of The New York Times. Hello there, David.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: How are you?

MCEVERS: And with me here at NPR West is Jamil Smith, political journalist and contributing writer at The Daily Beast. Welcome.

JAMIL SMITH: Thank you very much.

MCEVERS: OK. So President Trump plans to visit Louisiana tomorrow after he makes a return trip to Texas. Earlier this week, he was in Austin and Corpus Christi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you, everybody - what a crowd, what a turnout.

MCEVERS: The White House says Trump did not go to Houston on Tuesday to avoid getting in the way of rescue efforts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I will tell you. This is historic. It's epic, what happened. But you know what? It happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything. Thank you all, folks. Thank you. Thank you.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

MCEVERS: So David, I want to start with you. What did you make of Trump's trip to Texas and his appearances and what he said?

BROOKS: Well, it wasn't the most empathetic week of human history. But he did go. And this has not been a disastrous week the way Katrina was for President Bush, so I'd say adequate by that measure. And I'm, you know, looking ahead and looking a bit on the bright side that the dove will bring an olive branch of peace a bit to Washington.

I think we were headed toward a real funding showdown, a budget showdown in Washington - more dysfunction, more gridlock. I think a lot of Republicans, especially from Texas, are going to be willing to spend a little money to help with the fixing-up. I think it gives the administration a chance to change the subject and get off the subject of the border wall. The money to spend to build that can now be spent on fixing up Texas. And we're going to need a lot of construction workers, and they can come from around the world. So immigration could see a slight shift in emphasis, too. So I'm trying to look forward and see...

MCEVERS: Wow.

BROOKS: ...Less dysfunction than we've had.

MCEVERS: That's a pretty optimistic view. I'm looking at Jamil's face, and I'm seeing something different. What do you - what did you make of President Trump's trip to Texas?

SMITH: I mean it seemed to be a bit of grandstanding. I think that, you know, frankly he didn't go down there to really solicit any information that he could not have gotten in Washington. There was nothing - there was no - really no purpose for him to go. He didn't, thankfully, get in the way of relief efforts. At least he had enough, you know, consciousness to not do that.

But the real problem here is that the work needed to have been done before this. Steps needed to have been taken to address climate change, for instance. Republicans didn't want any of that. Dangerous chemicals, such as the ones that caused the Arkema explosion outside of Houston, needed to be labeled. The, you know, Republicans in charge in Texas didn't want any part of that. So it's really going to be a test of Republican governance going forward. And I don't really see too many - you know, I don't really see any reasons to be optimistic in that regard.

MCEVERS: On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the unexpected announcement that the president is pledging a million dollars of his own personal funds to the Harvey recovery effort. Many people have noted that Trump has a spotty record when it comes to following through on promises like this. David, how do - important do you think it'll be for him to follow through on this?

BROOKS: Whether it's a million dollars - they're going to need apparently in the range of $150, $200 billion, so (laughter) a million dollars here or there isn't that important. I was glad he went just because, you know, President Bush didn't go to New Orleans, and that just sent a bad signal. There should be sense - some sense of national participation. I - and so at least he did that. He's not going to be lifting carpets, but at least he showed some sense that the whole nation is rooting for Houston.

To me, I'm looking to see two things about - two further things about the aftermath. One, the national government has so - been so dysfunctional, but Houston came off so well this week. We saw local government. We saw especially local community bonding together. And it's worth pointing out. Houston is the most demographically diverse city in our country, and to see a city that diverse coming together with such solidarity has got to be a lesson in the record of potential local governance. And power is shifting from Washington to localities, and this may also hasten that.

MCEVERS: And Jamil, we just heard David earlier talk about how this could change the way things are going to work in Congress, maybe change the discussion about what gets funded. Does the wall get funded? Maybe there will be a shift toward thinking about better funding for the recovery effort here, and there might be some bipartisanship. Do you share the optimism in that regard?

SMITH: I share hope. You know, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Republicans in the House are looking to cut nearly a billion dollars from disaster accounts that help - you know, instead of, you know, putting it towards people like, you know, the folks in Houston who need it, they're going to use that to build the border wall. And there's only 2.3 billion remaining in the disaster funds as it is. So they're trying to cut nearly a billion from that to fund essentially what is a vanity project for Trump. It's a monument to xenophobia.

And I don't see how when you have proposals like that still on the table, when you have frankly the government shutdown still on the table, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to rule out today during the press briefing - I don't see a reason for overwhelming optimism that Republicans suddenly will get off of these nativist priorities and get this right.

MCEVERS: Another thing that Trump is talking about in terms of Congress of course is his tax plan. He traveled to Missouri on Wednesday to talk about this. He says he's committed to working with Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, and he's optimistic that his plan would happen. He also, though, had this to say. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And I don't want to be disappointed by Congress. Do you understand me?

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE))

TRUMP: Do you understand? Understand.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: Congress - I think Congress is going to make a comeback. I hope so.

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: Tell you what - the United States is counting on it.

MCEVERS: So at a time when there are these other funding fights in Congress, is a tax plan going to happen? David, do you think Congress is going to make this comeback that Trump is talking about?

BROOKS: No. You know, he talks about his Congress like a quarterback shouldn't talk about his offensive line. Those people are there to protect him.

SMITH: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And he distanced himself from them and blames everything on them. In 1986, when we had tax reform, we had amazing legislative skill - Bob Packwood, Dan Rostenkowski, Bill Bradley, James Baker, Dick Darman. These were the people in Congress in the White House. They were, like, the all-star team compared to anybody in Congress today, and they barely could do it. So I'd be very pessimistic that we're going to get one this year or next.

MCEVERS: Jamil?

SMITH: I think the real problem here is that Republicans that are now in Congress were elected to obstruct. They were not elected to legislate. And now that they're in the position of actually having to govern, they're finding it a little bit more difficult than they, you know, may have thought previously. Now, we should note that there really isn't any tax bill to sell right now. The president went there to explain why tax reform is - needs to happen, not how. So I think that's something they've got to solve.

MCEVERS: Jamil Smith of The Daily Beast and David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to both of you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GORDON GOODWIN'S BIG PHAT BAND'S "ON GREEN DOLPHIN STREET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.