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Trump Confronts Storm Threatening His Re-Election, Property

Justin Sink and Alyza Sebenius
Trump Confronts Storm Threatening His Re-Election, Property

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump and the White House prepared over the weekend to confront Hurricane Dorian, whose approach toward the coast of Florida and further north threatens both the president’s re-election and his personal property.

On Friday night, the National Hurricane Center said Dorian had “strengthened to an extremely dangerous” Category 4. But in some good news for the president, by Saturday morning the prospects for a direct hit on Florida looked less certain.

When Trump departed the White House on Friday evening for the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, he told reporters there was a “five percent chance” the hurricane would miss the state.

“We’re thinking about a Florida evacuation but it’s a little too soon,” he said. “We’ll probably make that determination on Sunday.”

By Saturday morning, weather models indicated Dorian has the potential to stall near the coast or even fail to make landfall in the state at all. Potential landfall could be north of Port St. Lucie, about 50 miles north of Palm Beach.

Trump canceled a planned weekend trip to Poland to monitor the storm, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place. On Saturday morning the presidential helicopter, Marine One, lifted off from Camp David at 9:45 a.m. and arrived at the Trump National golf club in Sterling, Virginia, at 10:07 a.m., according to the White House.

Florida is critical to the president’s chances for re-election, making it imperative that the government not fumble any storm response. The state is also home to the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach as well as his golf resorts in Jupiter and Miami, any of which could face the brunt of the hurricane.

“Mar-a-Lago can handle itself,” Trump said on Friday.

The U.S. Secret Service referred questions about the resort’s preparations and responsibility for any storm damage to its management, the Trump Organization. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

On Thursday, emergency officials briefed Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the Oval Office, using maps to illustrate the possible path of the storm and present an overview of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s operational response.

The president’s social media feeds have promoted warnings from the National Weather Service, and on Thursday Trump appeared in a White House video about the approaching storm.

“Hopefully we’ll get lucky, but it looks to me that this time it’s heading in one direction, all indications are it’s going to hit very hard and it’s going to be very big,” Trump said.

Storm Risks

The White House’s efforts underscore what’s at stake for the Trump administration, which came under criticism for its handling of Hurricane Maria, a deadly Category 5 hurricane that proved catastrophic to Puerto Rico in 2017.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew blasted South Florida, leaving 65 people dead and causing billions of dollars in damage, months before President George H.W. Bush was defeated for re-election. In 2005, the political standing of his son President George W. Bush plunged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which wrecked havoc in New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast.

At the Miami resort that the president’s promoted as a potential site for next year’s Group of Seven summit, Trump National Doral, receptionists warned guests on Friday to prepare for power failures and limited service. Down by the pool, workers in blue polo shirts and white shorts stacked chaise lounges.

Essential to Re-Election

A botched response to the storm could threaten Trump’s standing in Florida, which is crucial to his re-election hopes. He won the state -- which voted twice for Barack Obama -- by just over one percentage point, and a loss in 2020 would severely complicate his path to remain in the White House.

On Friday he declared a state of emergency in Florida after lawmakers representing the state asked for the designation before the storm strikes.

“Preparation has proven to be critical in protecting property and the public health and safety of potential victims of the storm,” said the letter signed by every member of the state’s congressional delegation.

Paper-Towel Toss

Trump has at times struggled in the role of consoler-in-chief after natural disasters. He was criticized for tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of victims of Hurricane Maria. And the staff of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” published what it called a children’s book -- “Whose Boat Is This Boat?” -- that mocked remarks Trump made in North Carolina last year after Hurricane Florence had pounded the state.

The president has defended his handling of the Puerto Rico storm by blaming local officials for poor conditions on the island. And the administration was praised for the federal response to tornadoes that killed 23 people in Alabama earlier this year and for securing emergency funds for Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

“Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth,” Trump tweeted earlier this week as Dorian threatened to hit the island, only to shift direction. “Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!”

Trump went on to call himself “the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico.”

Trump may also come under criticism for his administration’s plans to use $271 million allocated for disaster aid efforts for a program requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are reviewed in the U.S.

Democrats have expressed concern over the plan, which includes $155 million diverted from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund.

FEMA said the transfer would not affect the current pool of funding for ongoing recovery efforts and that the agency had enough to sustain current operations, and that the government had about $27 billion available to support communities affected by previous disasters.

The administration may seek additional supplemental funding depending on the severity of Dorian.

(Updates with latest forecast from second paragraph.)

--With assistance from Michael Smith, Josh Wingrove and Natnicha Chuwiruch.

To contact the reporters on this story: Justin Sink in Washington at jsink1@bloomberg.net;Alyza Sebenius in Washington at asebenius@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Justin Blum, Ros Krasny

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