Now that a hurricane is bearing down on the North Carolina coast, what remains infuriating about President Trump’s conspiracy-theorizing about last year’s Puerto Rico disaster is not just his display of sheer callousness toward its victims, or his megalomaniacal suggestion that this whole affair is, as always, all about him.
What also is galling is Trump’s obvious lack of any inclination to learn from what happened, so that if serious mistakes were indeed made, we can do better next time, saving many lives. All these things are related, of course: If Trump were to evince genuine curiosity in this regard, it might undercut his claim that his administration’s response to the calamity was stellar, and this isn’t to be questioned.
Many people who are angry about this have pointed out that congressional Republicans are making the situation worse, by punting on the oversight that is called for in situations such as this. That is true, but we should also talk more about what oversight Democrats would provide where Republicans have abdicated.
Democrats themselves should be spending more time pledging serious oversight of the Trump’s administration’s governing failures, not just of media-friendly (but also important) things such as Trump’s self-dealing and finances, and their potential overlap with the Russia investigation.
This is now beginning to happen in a serious way. Politico reports that congressional Democrats have released a new batch of documents undercutting Trump’s narrative about the Puerto Rico disaster. One email from a first responder soon after the hurricane hit reported “mass graves” and requested counseling help for first responders — perhaps undercutting early, limited official death estimates.
Meanwhile, an intelligence assessment prepared for top administration officials five days after landfall warned that the “potential for government failure and resulting humanitarian crisis on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is high.”
The question, as Democrats wrote in a letter to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) — chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — is whether Trump “disregarded” this information “in his many public statements” asserting that the response was going great, or worse, whether there was a “serious communication breakdown between the White House and first responders on the ground.”
Trump cannot admit error
In his now-notorious pair of tweets, Trump claimed that 3,000 people didn’t actually die from the storm’s impact but only in its aftermath — that is, after he had removed his glorious, magnanimous, heroic presence from the island — and accused Democrats of fabricating subsequent reporting about the size of the death toll “to make me look as bad as possible.”
There are multiple lies embedded in this claim, as demonstrated in a careful look by Glenn Kessler at what we knew about the death toll, when we knew it and what we know now. As Kessler concludes: “In any part of the United States, 3,000 excess deaths in six months would be considered a crisis, worthy of an intensive investigation to find out what went wrong — rather than a tweetstorm that minimizes the problem.”
Indeed, the episode shows that Trump either will not — or cannot — admit to even the possibility that his administration’s response to the disaster might have been seriously flawed. In the Democrats’ letter, Gowdy’s Democratic counterpart — Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) — argues that Trump’s refusal to treat this with the seriousness it deserves itself occasions much more serious oversight than Congress has offered thus far, and accuses Republicans of stonewalling Democratic requests for administration documents that might make that possible.
Perhaps Gowdy will respond to this claim in a persuasive way — he has not yet, according to Politico — or perhaps Republicans will now launch serious efforts at accountability. But the point is that this provides a preview of what proper oversight by a Democratic-controlled Congress might look like.
And it is highly unlikely that we will see such an effort from Republicans. As The Post’s Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey report, while a few Republicans did call for a probe into what went wrong, Trump’s tweets drew only “scattered criticism” from the rest of the party. Many quotes from top Republicans — the leadership included — had the feeling of a shrug, suggesting that they don’t see any urgency about using their authority to actually conduct such an accounting.
A bad-faith presidency
The cavalier willingness to trivialize the deaths of thousands, the megalomaniacal prioritization of Trump’s image over the need to learn critical lessons for the future, the snarling eagerness to pump out the most sordid of lies and deception about a national calamity that demands utmost seriousness of purpose — it’s all a reminder that we still haven’t found language adequate to capture the deep saturation levels of bad faith that we’re seeing from this presidency.
With this episode, there is a through-line that links all the megalomania and bad faith directly to governing failures. It’s worth underscoring that this link is present in other areas. The administration’s ongoing bad-faith sabotage of the health-care law is no doubt partly a product of Trump’s rage at the failure of Congress to help him wipe his feet on Barack Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment. The administration’s long-running failure to organize a serious defense against future Russian electoral sabotage was the direct result of Trump’s refusal to admit to Russian interference in 2016, because that would diminish the greatness of his victory.
Things such as these, and more, would be candidates for serious congressional oversight, which is one of the primary tools of recourse we have against such bottomless presidential bad faith. All indications are that Democrats would supply that oversight where Republicans have not. Which is to say that your recourse is to vote for that oversight, and then hold it accountable as well.