HOUSTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump took up the mantle of “comforter-in-chief” in a visit to storm-wracked Houston as he played with children and served up food to evacuees from Hurricane Harvey, the first major natural disaster of his eight months in office.
In a widely watched test of his presidential mien, Trump comforted victims and thanked volunteers and first responders after being criticized earlier in the week for not showing sufficient empathy to Texas residents during catastrophic flooding.
Trump, 71, was joined by his wife, Melania, as he passed out food and hugged, kissed and played with children at the “kid zone” in Houston’s NRG Center, a 700,000-square-foot (65,000 square meter) facility that was turned in to the city’s largest emergency shelter.
The day was a rare glimpse into Trump’s interactions with everyday Americans outside his campaign-style rallies. The former real estate magnate appeared relaxed as he posed for photographs with volunteers and chatted with evacuees alongside Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
“It has been a wonderful thing,” Trump said of his meetings with the children as he served food to evacuees amid shouts of “Thank you, sir.”
Trump, who declared Sunday a national day of prayer, also went to a church in nearby Pearland, where he and his wife helped load half a dozen cars with boxes of supplies for victims. He said the volunteer work was “good exercise.”
Trump also visited a neighborhood that had sustained flooding but had dried out to greet residents and praise them for doing “a fantastic job holding it together.”
The visit came after a week of historic flooding in the area killed at least 40 people, displaced more than 1 million and dumped as much as 50 inches (127 cm) of rain.
Trump asked Congress late on Friday for an initial $7.85 billion for hurricane recovery efforts. The request comes as Washington faces tough budget negotiations.
The trip may have political implications for Trump. According to the Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll, almost 59 percent of the public disapproves of Trump’s performance as president.
Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said Trump had done well overall in coordinating federal assistance and showing concern on Saturday for those affected by Harvey. But he would likely see little change in his poll numbers due to scrutiny of his administration’s other policies.