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How Trump Is Handling 2 Recent Disasters


The coronavirus outbreak is testing President Trump and his administration. Yesterday, the president visited with employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He also surveyed tornado damage in Tennessee. Like other presidents, how he handles crises and disasters could come to define his presidency.

NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith traveled with President Trump yesterday, joins us now from Florida, where the president is this weekend. Tam, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Tell us first about Tennessee. Where presidents - following events like that, presidents are often asked to be the consoler in chief.

KEITH: Right. President Trump visited a street that was just a tangle of demolished houses, trees and cars. It was devastated by the tornadoes that came through on Monday night in the middle of the night. On the street he visited, eight people had died on just that one small block. I asked President Trump what his message was for the people who live in Tennessee.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I do have a message, and I have a message for the families of those that lost their lives. We love them. They are special people. It's an incredible place, incredible state.

KEITH: A tornado is contained. You know, the scary part is over. There's no unknown. He can sign a disaster declaration, as he did, send federal help. And all that's left is the recovery, the rebuilding. And he can be sort of the cheerleader.

SIMON: And, of course, very different situation for the second part of his trip, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is trying to marshal the response to coronavirus. What stood out to you about that trip?

KEITH: Well, that whole trip was sort of symbolic of how this administration is struggling to deal with a very fluid situation. Whether President Trump would even go to the CDC was up in the air, on-again, off-again throughout the morning. And then, as President Trump talked about it, he was asked about the cruise ship off the coast. And he was very focused on his own numbers, on his ratings and on how the cruise ship passengers could make him look.


TRUMP: They would like to have the people come off. I'd rather have the people stay, but I'd go with them. I told them to make the final decision. I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship.

KEITH: Unlike the tornado, coronavirus - it is a challenge that is literally not contained. And President Trump seems to be struggling with that.

SIMON: Tam, how was this trip emblematic of how Trump deals with crisis situations?

KEITH: You know, he does want to accentuate the positive. And he also - he simply says things that aren't true as part of his effort to tell a story that is a positive one.


TRUMP: As of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test - that's the important thing. And the tests are all perfect like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect.

KEITH: To be clear, it is not perfect, and the tests are not readily available yet. There have been delays in getting them out. There are still problems and delays, and not everyone can get a test. As for the transcription, that call led to the president's impeachment.

SIMON: Trump announced last night that Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, is out of that job. Mark Meadows, the congressman from North Carolina, is in. What kind of effect that this might have on the administration's response?

KEITH: I mean, the timing is puzzling. But Mark Meadows, the congressman, has been in President Trump's ear, has spoken to him multiple times a week for much of his presidency and is a strong ally. So the president is excited about this change.

SIMON: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.