Democracy Dies in Darkness

Politics

Lost weekend: How Trump’s time at his golf club hurt the response to Maria

By Abby Phillip, Ed O'Keefe, Nick Miroff, Damian Paletta

September 29, 2017 at 8:07 PM

Carmen De Jesus uses a flashlight at the Moradas Las Teresas Elderly House in Carolina, Puerto Rico, where about 200 people are living without electricity.
A woman stands next to her apartment door at the Moradas Las Teresas Elderly House.
Crew members from Coast Guard Cutter Elm and members from Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico, fill portable diesel tanks at Vieques Island.
People buy ice at a local ice plant in Arecibo.
A landslide washed coffins down a hill from the Lares Municipal Cemetery.
A car drives past damaged trees in Morovis.
Workers remove dead chickens from damaged cages after Hurricane Maria hit the Tofrescos chicken farm in Morovis.
A man stands inside a destroyed supermarket in Salinas.
A damaged home in Toa Baja.
People sweep mud from inside an affected business in Comerio.
People take a bath in a spring under a tarp on a hillside in Yabucoa.
A woman combs her hair after taking a bath on the Cuyon River in Coamo.
People affected by the hurricane receive supplies in San Juan.
An elderly woman receives food during a supplies distribution in Salinas.
Hurricane survivors lineup at a gas station to fuel up vehicles in Dorado.
The U.S. and Puerto Rican flags fly next to a hillside and highway 30 in eastern Puerto Rico.
An aerial of the destroyed community of Toa Alta. The aftermath of the powerful storm has resulted in a near-total shutdown of the U.S. territory’s economy that could last for weeks and has many people running seriously low on cash and worrying that it will become even harder to survive on this storm-ravaged island.
Debris is seen strewn around cattle and destroyed vegetation in San Juan.
Boats are damaged in Dorado.
A government worker fills containers with drinking water for residents outside the Juan Ramon Loubriel stadium in Bayamon.
Puerto Rico Power Authority workers repair power lines in Loiza.
Javier walks on the roof of his house in Yabucoa next to a Puerto Rico flag and a placard that reads in Spanish “Voy a ti Puerto Rico” (I come to you Puerto Rico).
View of a destroyed house in Yabucoa.
People line up to get on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship in San Juan that is sailing to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with evacuees who are fleeing the island.
Marines and area residents unload food from an MV-22 Osprey aircraft in Jayuya.
Hospital employees sort donated canned food to deliver to a nearby shelter in Catano.
People charge their mobile devices outside a Walmart store in San Juan.
People line up to get into a San Juan Walmart.
People line up to get money from an ATM in San Juan.
Hurricane survivors receive food and water given out by volunteers and municipal police in Toa Baja.
People wait for charter flights out of San Juan at Isla Grande airport.
Relief supplies are brought in by private jets to Isla Grande airport in San Juan.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, right, hands in solar lamps to La Perla neighborhood residents in San Juan.
The mayor of San Juan handed out LED lights to residents of the La Perla neighborhood, one of the poorest and most violent, as Puerto Rico struggles with safety issues because of no electricity.
Residents of the La Perla neighborhood in San Juan, which has no electricity, use LED lights given out by the mayor.
A family fills up water bottles at a cistern truck in La Perla.
Yolanda Negron and her daughter Yolymar Bernard salvage what they can from their destroyed home in Corozal, Puerto Rico.
A toppled electronic billboard lies atop a house in San Juan.
People wait at a San Juan gas station to fill up their fuel containers.
A sign that reads “Borinken vive” is seen a week after the passage of the hurricane in Cayey.
Mario Soler Sr., right, and his son Mario Soler Jr. survey their destroyed plantain field in Salinas.
People cross a bridge that was destroyed in Corozal.
Ruby Rodriguez, 8, crosses through the San Lorenzo River with her family after the bridge that crosses the river was swept away in Morovis.
With no running water in their homes, people bathe in spring water in Corozal.
A resident bails water from a flooded home in Catano.
People wait in lines to take money from an ATM in Humacao, Puerto Rico. More than 3.4 million citizens in the U.S. territory were still without adequate food, water, electricity and fuel.
A worker collects food requested by buyers in a supermarket in Humacao.
A telephone technician tries to repair the lines in Punta Santiago.
A man holding gas containers walks by a long line of cars as people try to buy fuel in Morovis.
Women help each other across the San Lorenzo River after the bridge traversing it was washed away in Morovis.
Vehicles travel along a dark street in an area of San Juan without electricity.
Nelida Trinidad walks around her destroyed home in Montebello.
Maribel Valentin Espino sits in her hurricane-destroyed home in Montebello.
Ysamar Figueroa, carrying her son Saniel, looks at the damage in her neighborhood in Canovanas.
Jose Garcia Vicente walks through the rubble of his destroyed home in Aibonito.
People stand in line to withdraw cash from an ATM after the hurricane heavily damaged the government-run electrical system in the Miramar neighborhood of San Juan.
People fill containers with water from a tank truck in Canovanas.
Melvin Rodriguez showers with water from a well on a street in Canovanas.
A woman cleans up her damaged house in Canovanas.
Myriam Rivera and her family rebuild their house in the neighborhood of Acerolas in Toa Alta.
Wilson Hernandez and his family rebuild their house destroyed in Toa Alta.
Edgar Morales sits and waits in line to get gas with others in San Juan.
Semiramis Colon, center, waits in line to get into a San Juan grocery store.
Downed trees rest on tombs at a cemetery in Lares.
Neighbors sit on a couch outside their destroyed homes as sun sets in Yabucoa.
Nestor Serrano walks on the upstairs floor of his home, where the walls were blown off, in Yabucoa.
Floodwaters surround destroyed homes and vehicles in Hamacao.
An aerial view of destroyed homes in the La Perla neighborhood in San Juan.
People stand in a bar damaged in San Juan.
A woman carries bottles of water and food during a distribution of relief supplies in San Juan.
Photo Gallery: After the Category 4 hurricane slammed into Puerto Rico, many of the more than 3.4 million U.S. citizens in the territory were still without, adequate food, water, electricity and fuel. Flights off the island were infrequent, communications were spotty and roads were clogged with debris.

At first, the Trump administration seemed to be doing all the right things to respond to the disaster in Puerto Rico.

As Hurricane Maria made landfall on Wednesday, Sept. 20, there was a frenzy of activity publicly and privately. The next day, President Trump called local officials on the island, issued an emergency declaration and pledged that all federal resources would be directed to help.

But then for four days after that — as storm-ravaged Puerto Rico struggled for food and water amid the darkness of power outages — Trump and his top aides effectively went dark themselves.

Trump jetted to New Jersey that Thursday night to spend a long weekend at his private golf club there, save for a quick trip to Alabama for a political rally. Neither Trump nor any of his senior White House aides said a word publicly about the unfolding crisis.

Trump did hold a meeting at his golf club that Friday with half a dozen Cabinet officials — including acting Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke, who oversees disaster response — but the gathering was to discuss his new travel ban, not the hurricane. Duke and Trump spoke briefly about Puerto Rico but did not talk again until Tuesday, an administration official said.

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San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz desperate plea for aid in the wake of Hurricane Maria's aftermath on Sept. 29. (The Washington Post)

Administration officials would not say whether the president spoke with any other top officials involved in the storm response while in Bedminster, N.J. He spent much of his time over those four days fixated on his escalating public feuds with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with fellow Republicans in Congress and with the National Football League over protests during the national anthem.

In Puerto Rico, meanwhile, the scope of the devastation was becoming clearer. Virtually the entire island was without power and much of it could be for weeks, officials estimated, and about half of the more than 3 million residents did not have access to clean water. Gas was in short supply, airports and ports were in disrepair, and telecommunications infrastructure had been destroyed.

Related: [Trump emphasizes challenges in Puerto Rico amid criticism of hurricane response]

Federal and local officials said the lack of communications on the island made the task of assessing the widespread damage far more challenging, and even local officials were slow to recognize that for this storm, far more help would be necessary.

"I don't think that anybody realized how bad this was going to be," said a person familiar with discussions between Washington and officials in Puerto Rico. "Quite frankly, the level of communications and collaboration that I've seen with Irma and now Maria between the administration, local government and our office has been unprecedented."

"Whether that's been translated into effectiveness on the ground, that's up for interpretation," the person added.

Unlike what they faced after recent storms in Texas and Florida, the federal agencies found themselves partnered with a government completely flattened by the hurricane and operating with almost no information about the status of its citizens. The Federal Emergency Management Agency struggled to find truck drivers to deliver aid from ports to people in need, for example.

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Doctors in San Juan are worried that hospitals could run out of power, endangering patients. (Ashleigh Joplin, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

"The level of devastation and the impact on the first responders we closely work with was so great that those people were having to take care of their families and homes to an extent we don't normally see," said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want his statement to be interpreted as criticism of authorities in Puerto Rico. "The Department of Defense, FEMA and the federal government are having to step in to fulfill state and municipal functions that we normally just support."

Even though local officials had said publicly as early as Sept. 20, the day of the storm, that the island was "destroyed," the sense of urgency didn't begin to penetrate the White House until Monday, when images of the utter destruction and desperation — and criticism of the administration's response — began to appear on television, one senior administration official said.

"The Trump administration was slow off the mark," said Rep. Darren Soto (D), the first Florida lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent elected to Congress. ". . . We've invaded small countries faster than we've been helping American citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands."

Trump's public schedule Monday was devoid of any meetings related to the storm, but he was becoming frustrated by the coverage he was seeing on TV, the senior official said.

Related: [‘Mayday’: Puerto Rico officials decry federal hurricane response]

At a dinner Monday evening with conservative leaders at the White House, Trump opened the gathering by briefly lamenting the tragedy unfolding in Puerto Rico before launching into a lengthy diatribe against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over his opposition to the Republicans' failed health-care bill, according to one attendee.

After the dinner, Trump lashed out on social media. He blamed the island's financial woes and ailing infrastructure for the difficult recovery process. He also declared that efforts to provide food, water and medical care were "doing well."

On the ground in Puerto Rico, nothing could be further from the truth. It had taken until Monday — five days after Maria made landfall — for the first senior administration officials from Washington to touch down to survey the damage firsthand. And only after White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert and FEMA Director Brock Long returned to Washington did the administration leap into action. 

Trump presided over a Situation Room meeting on the federal and local efforts Tuesday, and late in the day, the White House added a Cabinet-level meeting on Hurricane Maria to the president's schedule.

White House aides say the president was updated on progress in the recovery efforts through the weekend, and an administration official said Vice President Pence talked with Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, over the weekend. Trump spoke to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló after Maria made landfall and again Tuesday; he spoke to González-Colón for the first time Wednesday.

The administration still fumbled at key moments after stepping up its response. A week after landfall, Trump still had not waived the Jones Act, a law that barred foreign-flagged vessels from delivering aid to Puerto Rico. Such a waiver had been granted for previous hurricanes this year.

Asked why his administration had delayed in issuing the waiver, Trump said Wednesday that "a lot of shippers and . . . a lot of people that work in the shipping industry" didn't want it lifted.

"If this is supposed to be the 'drain the swamp' president, then don't worry about the lobbyists and do what's needed and waive the act," said James Norton, a former deputy assistant homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush who oversaw disaster response for the agency. "We're talking about people here."

Trump waived the law Thursday.

After getting good marks from many for his administration's response to Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, Trump has struggled to find the right tone to address the harsher reviews after Maria. He has repeatedly praised his administration's actions, telling reporters Friday that it has "been incredible the results that we've had with respect to loss of life" in Puerto Rico. The official death toll is 16, a number that is expected to rise.

"We have done an incredible job considering there's absolutely nothing to work with," Trump said as he was leaving the White House for another weekend at Bedminster.

At the same time, he said that "the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort . . . will be funded and organized," and he referred to the "tremendous amount of existing debt" on the island.

Related: [U.S. responded to Haiti quake more forcefully than to Puerto Rico disaster]

Trump's top disaster-response aides have blanketed television in recent days in an attempt to reset the narrative. Duke, the acting DHS secretary, told reporters Thursday outside the White House that Puerto Rico was a "good news story." The comment seemed to unleash pent-up fury from at least one local official, after days of offering praise to the Trump administration in an apparent effort to secure more federal help.

"I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives," San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said at a news conference Friday. "I am done being polite, I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell. . . . We are dying here. If we don't get the food and the water into the people's hands, we are going to see something close to a genocide."

Trump's rosy assessment of the federal response has also contrasted sharply with the comments of federal officials on the ground.

Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, who was named this week to lead recovery efforts, told reporters Friday that there were not enough people and assets to help Puerto Rico combat what has become a humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of the storm.

The military has significantly stepped up its mobilization to the island commonwealth, with dozens more aircraft and thousands of soldiers bringing "more logistical support" to a struggling recovery effort that has been delayed by geographical and tactical challenges. 

Buchanan said that Defense Department forces have been in place since before the storm lashed Puerto Rico but that the arrival of additional resources is part of the natural shift in operations. Sometimes troops act ahead of the local government to meet needs, but they were also waiting for an "actual request" from territorial officials to bring in more resources. Buchanan will bring together land forces, including the Puerto Rico National Guard, to begin pushing into the interior of the island, where aid has been slowed by washed-out roads and difficult terrain. The Navy previously led the military response in Puerto Rico.

"No, it's not enough, and that's why we are bringing a lot more," the three-star general said of the resources in Puerto Rico thus far.

Arelis R. Hernández in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and John Wagner and Joel Achenbach in Washington contributed to this report.


Abby Phillip is a national political reporter covering the White House for The Washington Post.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter who has covered congressional and presidential politics since 2008. He previously covered federal agencies, the federal workforce and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq. Follow @edatpost.

Nick Miroff covers drug trafficking, border security and transnational crime on The Post’s National Security desk. He was a Post foreign correspondent in Latin America from 2010 to 2017, and has been a staff writer since 2006.

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