On the list of President Donald Trump’s alleged political sins, wrongly crediting a GOP ally for getting him to declare a prehurricane federal emergency in North Carolina doesn’t rank particularly high.
But this is a remarkably transparent political gambit even for a president to whom so little is holy, coming as it does on the eve of a natural disaster that threatens the southeastern United States.
On Tuesday night, Trump credited Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., for his decision to declare a federal emergency in the state ahead of Hurricane Dorian’s arrival. “At the request of Senator Thom Tillis, I am getting the North Carolina Emergency Declaration completed and signed tonight,” Trump tweeted. “Hope you won’t need it!”
The first problem with that is that senators don’t formally request states of emergenc. Under federal law, that’s left to governors.
In North Carolina’s case, that governor is Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Cooper declared a state emergency Friday and formally requested the federal one Monday. Trump didn’t mention him in the tweet.
The second problem is that it’s clear that this was political payback, and there’s virtually nothing subtle about it. Tillis, as Wagner notes, is up for reelection in 2020, and he faces a difficult general-election contest and a well-funded primary foe, businessman Garland Tucker. He appears to have earned plenty of goodwill from Trump after his flip-flop on Trump’s border-wall national emergency, which he eventually supported after writing a Washington Post commentary against it.
And Tillis was clearly angling for some credit here, repeatedly tweeting about his talks with Trump about the federal emergency.
“Just got off the phone with President @realDonaldTrump,” Tillis tweeted Monday evening, saying Trump would be issuing the federal emergency. “Just spoke with President @realDonaldTrump again & he said an emergency declaration for NC would be made later tonight,” he tweeted Tuesday. When Trump tweeted his credit to Tillis, the senator retweeted it without correcting Trump or mentioning Cooper’s role.
“Thank you, Mr. President!” he said.
Fine. Tillis can certainly play a role in that process, too — even if he doesn’t formally make the request. And there’s nothing wrong with letting people you work for know you’re engaged and talking to the president.
But even if we set aside all of that: Was Trump really not going to declare a federal emergency in one of two states that are most directly in Dorian’s path, along with South Carolina? That state had already gotten one, as had Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which appear to have escaped the worst effects of the hurricane. As you can see from this long list of hurricane-related federal emergency declarations, this is a matter of course. Many recent declarations were for storms whose names you’ve probably already forgotten.
Whether someone is politicizing a natural disaster is difficult to pin down; one person’s politicization is another’s raising of an important issue. Republicans accuse Democrats of politicizing hurricanes by citing climate change, for example, when Democrats and climate scientists think that’s pretty important.
But even accounting for that subjectivity, Trump’s pre-hurricane gambits have been pretty obvious.
There was the time he pardoned Joe Arpaio, a former sheriff in Arizona, as Hurricane Harvey was hitting Texas — and acknowledged that he did so with the hurricane in mind. “A lot of people think it was the right thing to do,” Trump said. “Actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they were normally.”
There was the time he lodged a conspiracy theory that Democrats had inflated the Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rico ... less than 24 hours before Hurricane Florence was set to hit the Carolinas. (Even Florida Republicans disowned that Trump theory.)
Just last week, Trump called Puerto Rico corrupt and wrongly inflated the amount of Maria-related aid the U.S. territory received, even as it faced another blow from Dorian.
And before he was president, Trump previewed Hurricane Sandy in 2012 by arguing that President Barack Obama would use it to his advantage for his reelection bid.
“Hurricane is good luck for Obama again — he will buy the election by handing out billions of dollars,” Trump tweeted.
Trump even used the occasion to extend the deadline for his offer of $5 million for Obama’s birth certificate.
“Because of the hurricane, I am extending my 5 million dollar offer for President Obama’s favorite charity until 12PM on Thursday,” Trump said.
It has become pretty clear what’s on Trump’s mind when a hurricane is about to hit.