WASHINGTON — It’s the kind of split-screen moment no White House likes.
As Maui counted its dead on Sunday, President Joe Biden sat on the beach in Delaware, rode his bicycle and said little about the deadliest wildfire to hit the US in a century.
“We’re looking into it,” he said as he cycled past reporters who yelled at him as he whizzed by.
Biden had first commented on the catastrophic fire last Thursday. The next day, his son became the subject of a federal special counsel investigation. And since then, Biden has said virtually nothing to the press — not about Hunter or the fires or anything.
Four days of silence have not gone unnoticed — not by the reporters who pressured White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday about why he stopped speaking, or by the Republicans, who piled criticism on the criticism that the president did not reciprocate the devastation, or by conservative media outlets, which on Tuesday placed photos of Biden on the beach alongside images of the fires.
Donald Trump, in a video posted between attacks on the prosecutor indicting him on Monday, released a two-minute video criticizing Biden’s response to the fires.
“It is a shame that Joe Biden refuses to help or comment on the Maui tragedy,” he said.
The White House points to the response on the ground as evidence that the Biden administration is taking the disaster seriously. Nearly 500 federal workers are deployed to Hawaii. FEMA has provided 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 cots and 10,000 blankets. The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy Third Fleet supported response efforts, and the Marines provided Blackhawk helicopters to fight fires.
Biden has also spoken with state governor Josh Green and Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, among others.
“We will not be lectured by Republican officials in Washington who double down on the denial of the climate crisis devastating the red and blue states, who tried to cut the wildfire budget, and who defended the Trump administration cutting off Puerto Rico of hurricane relief,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman.
With the death toll expected to continue to rise, Biden flew to the 2024 battlefield state of Wisconsin on Tuesday to celebrate the first anniversary of an ambitious climate change package that is central to his campaign message. Biden’s trip will put him in front of cameras and a microphone, giving him a chance to address the crisis in more detail.
But that wasn’t enough to silence critics who exploit what they see as a potential vulnerability.
The Republican National Committee sent an email Monday with a photo of Biden sitting in a beach chair in a sandy stretch of Delaware, while “Hawaiians are left to fend for themselves.”
Doug Heye, a former RNC official, called Biden’s relative silence “surprising” and “disappointing.”
Biden had “always been portrayed as someone who would make a great commander in chief,” Heye said. “And, you know, here we have the deadliest wildfire in our country’s history, and he’s been silent.”
Having lost a wife and daughter in a car accident and a son to cancer, Biden has embraced the role of soothing those in pain, drawing on his own experiences to comfort a grieving parent or child. He often promises that the day will come when the memory of a loved one will “bring a smile to your lips before a tear comes to your eye” – as he said in 2021 during a speech marking the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths by COVID-19 .
To provide that kind of reassurance often requires visiting the scene of the disaster. A White House spokeswoman told reporters Tuesday that officials are in “active conversation about when a visit to Hawaii might be possible.” Such a presidential journey that poses huge logistical challenges given the distances and the ongoing efforts to contain the fires and locate more victims.
“We want to make sure they have, you know, all the resources and space they need and don’t disrupt operations right now,” Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Deanne Criswell said at a news conference Monday.
Natural disasters test a president’s executive skills and political knowledge. Former President George W. Bush fell short on both counts when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. The storm killed more than 1,300 people, many of whom were black and poor and trapped in the floodwaters that rose after the storm dissipated. passed.
While much less devastating, a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, provided a stage for Trump to defeat Biden. The February accident released toxic chemicals that prompted a mass evacuation and fueled fears of further contamination. No one was killed in that spill, but concerns about long-term health consequences remain.
Trump visited the site a few weeks after the crash, meeting with local officials and harshly criticizing the incumbent president for staying away. While Biden said he also planned to visit eastern Palestine more than six months later, that trip has yet to take place.
While in power, Trump faced fierce criticism for his response to a hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. During a visit to the island, Trump threw paper towels into the crowd at a shelter, an act considered insensitive given the extent of the damage.
It often takes time to assess the response on the spot and assess whether there were missteps. An inspector general’s report later found that the Trump administration obstructed an investigation into why officials withheld about $20 billion in hurricane relief from the island.
“Ultimately, you are judged by what happens on the ground. You can say a lot, but in the end the mayors and the local officials and governors don’t care so much about your words, but act on the long list of needs they give you,” Robert Mann, who was an aide to the then Louisiana government , Kathleen Blanco during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said in an interview.
Getting resources to Hawaii in the coming months could quickly turn into a partisan battle in Congress. Republicans have historically resisted providing additional spending for disasters, especially in places that traditionally don’t vote for the GOP.
Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, is already starting to advocate for more money.
“We need a bipartisan emergency supplemental appropriation bill that includes significant funding for Hawaii,” he told NBC News. Hawaii will receive all the federal resources it needs.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com