Trump hugs children, serves food in visit to victims of Harvey

HOUSTON, Sept 2 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump tried on the role of "comforter-in-chief" on Saturday, playing with children in an evacuation center and passing out food and supplies to those in need after Hurricane Harvey's assault on Houston.

Trump, dealing with the first natural disaster of his 8-month-old presidency, comforted victims and thanked volunteers and first responders after being criticized earlier in the week for not showing sufficient empathy on his first trip to the storm-battered Texas coast.

RELATED: Donald and Melania Trump visit Texas, Louisiana

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US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in Ellington Field in Houston on September 2, 2017. The Trumps arrived in Houston on Saturday to meet victims of the epic floods which devastated large parts of the fourth largest US city. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump wave from Air Force One after arriving at Ellington Field to meet with flood survivors and volunteers who assisted in relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 2: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump walks with first lady Melania Trump prior to their Marine One departure from the White House September 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. The President and first lady are traveling to Texas to visit individuals impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk on South Lawn of the White House in Washington before their departure to view storm damage in Texas, U.S., September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 2: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump walks with first lady Melania Trump prior to their Marine One departure from the White House September 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. The President and first lady are traveling to Texas to visit individuals impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 2: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump walks with first lady Melania Trump prior to their Marine One departure from the White House September 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. The President and first lady are traveling to Texas to visit individuals impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump board Air Force One on September 2, 2017, at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The Trumps are traveling to Texas and Lousiana to assess conditions in the storm-ravaged states. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump board Air Force One on September 2, 2017, at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The Trumps are traveling to Texas and Lousiana to assess conditions in the storm-ravaged states. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
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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.

Trump appeared relaxed as he posed for photographs with volunteers and chatted with those relocated to the shelter alongside Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

"It has been a wonderful thing," Trump said of his meetings with the children as he helped serve food to evacuees amid shouts of "Thank you, sir."

Trump, who declared Sunday a national day of prayer, then 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 that 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.

His initial trip was contrasted unfavorably with the reaction of former President Barack Obama, who became known as "comforter-in-chief" after mass shootings and the Sandy superstorm that hit New Jersey in 2012.

NOT HAMPERING RELIEF EFFORTS

With floodwaters still present, Trump had stayed clear of the Houston area on his trip to Texas on Tuesday, saying he did not want to hamper rescue efforts. Instead, he met with Cabinet members, state and local leaders and first responders in the state capital Austin and Corpus Christi, where Harvey first hit, focusing on the logistics of the government response.

Trump tweeted that he had seen "first hand the horror & devastation" from Harvey but reporters traveling with him said they saw no damage.

"That was reasonable criticism," said Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Republican Party in Travis County, Texas, who has praised the Trump administration’s handling of the disaster.

On Saturday, some area residents - even one who had voted Democrat - said they believed Trump's visit was a positive.

"It raises the morale," Kevin Jason Hipolito, who identified himself as a Democrat, told reporters at the convention center. "When he went to Corpus I was like, 'Man he just forgot about us.' This shows a lot of support. It perks up morale."

But it remains a difficult task for Trump, a Republican businessman new to politics, to match expectations set by his predecessors of both parties who were widely considered politically deft at displaying solidarity and commitment to those suffering from disasters both natural and man-made.

"Is he going to help? Can he help?" Devon Harris, 37, a construction worker, said at the convention center. "I lost my home. My job is gone. My tools are gone. My car is gone. My life is gone. What is Trump going to do?"

Trump was cheered at both the convention center and a church he visited and appeared to crack a joke, perhaps at his own expense.

While donning gloves to serve food to victims of the disaster in a cafeteria, he commented "my hands are too big," referencing a meme from the presidential campaign in which the size of the candidate's hands were linked to his supposed virility by his opponents, including Republican Marco Rubio. (Reporting by Steve Holland in Houston and Yeganeh Torbati and Jim Oliphant in Washington; Writing by Dustin Volz; Editing by David Chance and Bill Trott)

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