US President Donald Trump is grappling with a pair of external threats in the form of Hurricane Harvey and North Korea – domestic and international risks that pose a major test of his presidency.

Trump’s handling of the crises is perhaps the greatest challenge of his leadership so far and a real-time proving ground with tens of thousands of lives in the balance.

In some ways, Trump faces both a higher and lower bar when it comes to how the nation will assess how he deals with the tropical storm and Pyongyang’s decision to launch a medium-range missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.

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Trump is still under siege with Russia inquiries, Republican infighting and criticism from members of his own administration for his remarks about violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

An effective response to either crisis could allow Trump to demonstrate an ability to govern that has remained elusive during the turbulent first months of his administration.

“We want to do it better than ever before,” he said at a fire station in Corpus Christi. “We want to be looked at in five years and 10 years from now, as this is the way to do it.”

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But he spoke little about the victims.

“There was something missing from what President Trump said … that’s the empathy for the people who suffer,” Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s first press secretary, said on Fox News. “The first thing he should have said was that his heart goes out to those people in Houston who are going through this and that the government is here to help them.”

The president’s handling of the crises to this point have been, in many ways, trademark Trump.

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The president followed the storm closely, taking in the television images before tweeting about the “historic”, “unprecedented”, and “once in 500 year” flooding.

His trip to Texas was carefully planned, but at times still bore the undercurrents of a political event rather than a disaster relief effort.

In Corpus Christi, Trump was greeted by hundreds of fans, who lined the road with signs and chanted, “Texas strong!” and “We love Trump!”

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After the storm briefing, Trump emerged and offered an impromptu rally-style speech. “What a crowd! What a turnout!” he enthused. “This is historic, it’s epic what happened. But you know what, it happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything.”

In Austin, his second stop, the president was met by a sizeable anti-Trump demonstration, with signs saying, “Nyet” and “Impeach little hands.”

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Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman, said “sitting around waiting to see how he’s going to behave or perform” is troubling.

“It’s going to take a lot more than how you handle a crisis in Texas or how you handle the crisis in North Korea,” Steele said. “There’s a need for consistency.”

With no missile launches during the first three weeks of August, Trump suggested his tough talk towards Pyongyang was working. At a rally in Phoenix last week, Trump told a boisterous crowd that leader Kim Jong-un was “starting to respect” the US.

“I believe he is starting to respect us,” Trump said at the rally. “I respect that fact very much.”

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Those comments, however, came before North Korea’s firing of three short-range missiles last week then its latest launch on Tuesday, when Trump warned that “all options are on the table”.

Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University in Houston, said Trump’s behaviour in the face of immense challenges will help determine how he compares to his predecessors.

“A major component of being US president is inspiring the country to pull together in times of cataclysmic events,” he said. “In the case of natural disasters, the president is supposed to be the personification of care and concern.”

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Trump’s trip to Texas, he said, was positive, but his “coldhearted behaviour” – including promoting a book in the middle of the storm – undermined his effectiveness.

“He lost the moral high ground,” Brinkley said. “We’re not feeling the empathy as much as he’s going through the motions.”

On North Korea, Trump “complicated his own hand” with his “respect” line during the Phoenix rally. “That’s not a sign of respect when you fire a missile over Japan – that’s flipping off the president,” Brinkley said.

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