Biden heads to Florida to tour Idalia damage as presidential politics swirl

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President Joe Biden is set to travel to storm-ravaged Florida on Saturday, where he will meet with Floridians impacted by Hurricane Idalia, tour damage and thank emergency responders.

But in a stark departure from his previous visits to the Sunshine State in the wake of major disasters, Biden apparently won’t be joined by the state’s firebrand governor and GOP presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis. The moment represents one of the first times the two men have showed signs of their political rivalry while responding to a disaster. Biden and DeSantis have previously met under challenging circumstances – the two convened in response to the 2021 Surfside building collapse and again in 2022 following Hurricane Ian’s damage in southwestern Florida.

On the visit, the president and first lady Dr. Jill Biden will receive an aerial tour of impacted areas, participate in a response and recovery briefing with federal personnel, local officials, and first responders, then tour an impacted community before delivering remarks in Live Oak, Florida, a White House official said. Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican, and other local officials will participate in parts of the visit, the official added.

On Saturday, FEMA administrator Deanna Criswell said that Biden had contacted DeSantis to inform him of the visit.

“When the president contacted the governor to let him know he was going to be visiting … the governor’s team and my team, mutually agreed on a place that would have minimal impact into operations,” Criswell said on CNN This Morning. “Live Oak, you know, the power is being restored. The roads aren’t blocked, but there’s families that are hurting there,” she said.

It’s the latest in a back and forth between DeSantis and the administration, after the governor’s spokesperson Friday night said he had no plans to meet with Biden Saturday, contradicting Biden telling CNN that he would meet with his political rival.

“I would have to defer you to the governor on what his schedule is going to be,” Criswell said to CNN’s Amara Walker.

On Friday afternoon, Biden told CNN that “yes,” he’d be meeting with DeSantis. But by the evening, a spokesperson for DeSantis said there are no plans for two to meet, eschewing an opportunity to once again put their differences aside to navigate a response to a disaster as the governor appeared to pull the rug out on the plans.

“We don’t have any plans for the governor to meet with the president tomorrow,” DeSantis spokesperson Jeremy Redfern told CNN Friday evening. “In these rural communities, and so soon after impact, the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts.”

White House spokesperson Emilie Simons said that Biden’s visit was being planned to minimize disruption to storm recovery efforts.

“President Biden and the first lady look forward to meeting members of the community impacted by Hurricane Idalia and surveying impacts of the storm,” Simons said. “They will be joined by Administrator Criswell who is overseeing the federal response. Their visit to Florida has been planned in close coordination with FEMA as well as state and local leaders to ensure there is no impact on response operations.”

A presidential visit anywhere requires a significant security footprint, and DeSantis suggested to reporters earlier Friday that he had raised concerns about that level of disruption as response efforts continue.

But a White House official said that DeSantis did not raise those concerns about the visit with Biden when the two spoke by phone ahead of Biden’s visit to Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters Thursday, during which Biden announced the trip. Biden’s upcoming travel schedule also presented logistical challenges to setting a date – he celebrates Labor Day with workers in Philadelphia Monday, awards the Medal of Honor at the White House on Tuesday and is headed to the G20 Summit in India next Thursday.

For DeSantis, who catapulted to GOP mega-stardom in recent years in part by taking aim at the Biden White House, staying away from Saturday’s visit will eliminate the possibility of any collegiality between the two being caught on camera during a tense Republican primary.

The White House had earlier attempted to downplay any rivalry between the two when it comes to responding to a natural disaster.

“They are very collegial when we have the work to do together of helping Americans in need, citizens of Florida in need,” deputy national security adviser Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall told reporters Thursday when pressed on the dynamic.

The Democratic president and the Republican governor have been in close touch leading up to, during and after the hurricane, which made landfall Wednesday in the coastal Big Bend region as a powerful Category 3 storm. Biden joked that he had DeSantis “on direct dial” given their frequent communication this week. But while the president has offered direct praise to DeSantis’ handling of the response, the Florida Republican largely stuck to assuring the public the two can work together.

Asked whether he sensed any politics in their conversations, Biden told reporters during the visit to FEMA headquarters that he didn’t – and acknowledged that it was “strange” given the polarized political climate.

“No. Believe it or not. I know that sounds strange, especially how – looking at the nature of politics today,” he said.

Biden continued, “I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help, and I trust him to be able to suggest that this is not about politics, it’s about taking care of the people of the state. This is about taking care of the people of his state.”

Still, DeSantis hasn’t shied away from his criticism of the president and his handling of disasters outside his state. During a GOP presidential debate last week, days before the storm made landfall, DeSantis took aim at Biden’s response to the wildfires in Maui.

“Biden was on the beach while those people were suffering. He was asked about it and he said, ‘No comment.’ Are you kidding me? As somebody that’s handled disasters in Florida, you’ve got to be activated. You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to be present. You’ve got to be helping people who are doing this,” he said.

There was a similar dynamic surrounding their work together on Hurricane Ian last year. Weeks before the storm touched down, DeSantis had flown migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, and made a national tour spotlightling the move. Biden accused DeSantis at the time for “playing politics with human beings” and called the stunt “unAmerican.”

There have also been back-and-forth tensions between the White House and the governor on support for LGBTQ kids and book bans in public schools.

Still, they set their differences aside as DeSantis welcomed Biden to the Sunshine State to tour damage from the hurricane.

“I’m just thankful everyone has banded together,” DeSantis said, before adding: “Mr. President, welcome to Florida. We appreciate working together across various levels of government.”

That appearance together was rather deflating for Democrats who had hoped to raise concerns about DeSantis’ handling of the storm, particularly the seeming lack of urgency in local evacuation orders. But when Biden called DeSantis’ response to Ian “pretty remarkable,” it closed the door on that.

Both leaders also poured on the niceties in the wake of the deadly condo collapse in Surfside, Florida, a year earlier.

“You recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one and you’ve been very supportive,” DeSantis said during a briefing in Miami Beach.

Biden added, “You know what’s good about this? We live in a nation where we can cooperate. And it’s really important.”

That dynamic will not be on display Saturday.

Biden formally approved a major disaster declaration for Florida on Thursday, making federal funding available to those in affected counties. As of Friday evening, power restoration remained the top response priority as over 70,000 Floridians remain without power amid high temperatures.

Approximately 1,500 federal responders are on the ground in Florida, including search and rescue personnel and members of the Army Corps of Engineers.

As the state seeks to recover from the storm’s devastation, the Biden administration asked Congress on Friday for an additional $4 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, pointing to Hurricane Idalia and a brutal stretch of natural disasters across the country in recent weeks. That is in addition to a request for $12 billion last month.

As the White House pushes Congress to pass a short-term spending bill to avoid a shutdown and ensure continuity of government services, the president has signaled that he’s ready to blame Republicans if there isn’t enough funding to respond to disasters.

For his part, DeSantis has lobbied unapologetically for the kind of disaster aid that as a congressman he voted against as wasteful spending.

Asked about the $4 billion request Friday, DeSantis told reporters, “How Washington handles all this stuff, I don’t quite understand. … They just did a big budget deal and did not include that. They included a lot of money for a lot of other stuff.”

He continued, “I trust our senators and congressmen hopefully to be able to be able to work it out in a good way. You know, as governor, I’m gonna be pulling whatever levers I can to be able to help folks. And so, if that’s the state, we’re mobilizing all of our state assets. Private sector, we’re leveraging that. And we will apply for whatever federal money is available.”

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