McCarthy ramps up pressure on Biden over Maui wildfire response

Joe Biden,Jill Biden
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden participate in a blessing ceremony with the Lahaina elders at Moku’ula as they visit areas devastated by the Maui wildfires, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Evan Vucci/AP

McCarthy ramps up pressure on Biden over Maui wildfire response

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The White House’s attempts to move past President Joe Biden’s response to the Maui wildfires are running into a roadblock in the form of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

The president’s decision to vacation amid the destruction, which has claimed the lives of 115 people, with hundreds more unaccounted for, led to GOP criticism that Biden had been derelict in addressing the crisis. Those criticisms were amplified when he appeared to respond “no comment” to a reporter’s question about the death toll.


Biden attempted to put the issue to rest by traveling to Hawaii last week, 13 days after the wildfires began. His deputy press secretary argued a few days later that the president could not hear the reporter’s shouted question.

But McCarthy is determined to keep the Biden administration’s handling in the spotlight. He floated the possibility of a congressional investigation into the disaster response and plans to visit the island himself, a trip that could come as soon as this week.

The moves are not entirely surprising. House Republicans have flexed their majority power by investigating the Biden administration on multiple fronts, from the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan to the influx of immigrants at the southern border. The president himself is the subject of an investigation into alleged corruption that appears headed for an impeachment inquiry.

No formal investigation on the wildfires has been announced, but McCarthy told reporters he is contemplating one for sometime after the House returns from recess in September.

“I’m very concerned about the response,” McCarthy said last week while touring a manufacturing plant in New York. “How could you lose that many Americans in today’s age? I’m going to be working with committees to investigate what went on so this never happens again.”

Biden ordered “all available Federal assets” to assist first responders one day after the blaze began on Aug. 8, aid that included agency and military support to response and rescue efforts.

He issued a major disaster declaration on Aug. 10 following an urgent plea by Hawaii lawmakers.

“We’re working as quickly as possible to fight these fires and evacuate residents and tourists. In the meantime, our prayers are with the people of Hawaii,” Biden said at a White House event in Salt Lake City. “But not just our prayers: Every asset we have will be available to them.”

Part of that response was a one-time check of $700 to support victims’ “immediate needs,” but Republicans framed the aid, just one element of federal assistance, as a woefully insufficient “slap in the face.” His decision to proceed with planned vacations in Rehoboth Beach and then Lake Tahoe provided Republicans with a useful split-screen.

The wildfires, exacerbated by a combination of strong winds and drought, destroyed more than a thousand homes as first responders struggled to contain them.

Biden, whom the White House says waited to visit to avoid interfering in the search and rescue operation, ultimately paused his Lake Tahoe vacation to survey the damage and speak with first responders in an Aug. 21 trip attended by first lady Jill Biden.

“Jill and I are here to grieve with you but also want you to know the entire country is here for you,” he said at a community center in Lahaina, a historic town wiped out by the wildfires.

But he stoked further criticism for comparing the devastation to his family’s experience with a 2004 kitchen fire that he has in the past exaggerated.

“I almost lost my wife, my ‘67 Corvette, and my cat,” he joked before invoking the loss of his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash.

“Only thing worse than losing someone is not [being] sure whether you’ve lost someone,” he said.

The trip by McCarthy, who will soon travel to the Pacific for a G7 speaker’s conference, gives Republicans another opportunity to generate a news cycle on Biden’s disaster response.


“There are so many mistakes that have happened that could have protected American lives. There are so many things that could have happened that could have [prevented] this fire,” McCarthy told Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo on Sunday.

“So, I will be going to Hawaii to look at Maui and see ways that we can improve it — in the world today,” he added, “this has got to stop.”

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