On Thursday morning, President Trump made a remarkable statement: The government couldn’t keep federal disaster relief efforts running in Puerto Rico forever. There would need to be some limit, he hinted in a string of tweets, tied to a dollar amount set by Congress.
The impression left by the tweets was that Trump’s patience with the disaster in Puerto Rico had run out, that it was time to start winding things down and to let the island fend for itself. Contrast that with his assertion to Texas and Louisiana after Hurricane Harvey struck in September.
That contrast is not new. Trump downplayed the looming disaster in Puerto Rico from the outset.
Before Harvey threatened the Gulf Coast and Hurricane Irma hit Florida, Trump was providing constant updates on their approach and immediate aftermath on Twitter, marveling at the storms’ destructive power and offering praise for those responding to the storm. He spent his weekends at the White House and Camp David, helping to coordinate operations.
Before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Trump tweeted twice.
He spent the weekend it hit at his club in Bedminster, N.J., — and the following weekend there, too. Last weekend he was at the White House — save for several trips to his golf course in Virginia.
As criticism of Trump’s handling of Maria started to mount, Trump’s first response was a string of tweets in which he criticized the island’s “massive debt.” He began to turn his attention to the crisis on the island, scheduling a day-long visit and praising the work of federal employees who were already on the ground.
But everything was tinged with defensiveness. He repeatedly reminded people that Puerto Rico was harder to get to than Texas. Praise for first responders was levied with critiques of the “fake news” for also covering the numerous problems Puerto Ricans faced.
Insistences that things were going well sat next to insults aimed at a politician who had been critical of Trump for the lack of resources in her city.
Note the comment about Puerto Rican workers in that last tweet. Over the weekend, Trump tweeted a video showing all the hard work that federal workers were doing.
As our Jenna Johnson reported, one section of that video praised the government’s efforts in clearing roads. It cuts off right before the speaker praised the work of Puerto Rican residents in beginning the laborious process.
By the standard Trump set after Hurricane Sandy, his administration’s response has been unsuccessful.
As of writing, only 17 percent of the island has access to electricity. A fifth of gas stations haven’t had a single delivery of fuel since the storm hit three weeks ago.
The obvious question is: Why? Why did Trump’s response to Puerto Rico differ so robustly from his responses in Texas and Florida? Why his willingness to bail so soon?
One reason is clearly that Trump’s administration wasn’t as prepared for the storm in Puerto Rico. The Washington Post has reported that it doesn’t appear to have understood the scale of the disaster until images of damage appeared on television the Monday after the storm hit. Resources were ready before Harvey hit Texas in a way that they weren’t before Maria hit Puerto Rico, though they certainly could have been.
This yields a “why” question itself. Why wasn’t it as prepared? It’s hard to avoid the assumption that Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory and not a state may have played a role. An Associated Press poll released last week found that Americans were generally less likely to see the government as having a major responsibility for dealing with a storm that hit a territory than one that hit the mainland. Republicans were much less likely than Democrats to say that the government had a major responsibility to help rebuild in a territory.
Another reason is that Trump’s consideration of how to respond to Puerto Rico was tinged from the outset in contentiousness. Trump is famous for engaging in any fight that is presented to him, however trivial, and the combination of an angry local politician and a pressing media offered him two targets to fight back against. Puerto Rico became about proving that things were better than they seemed to spite those critics.
A third is that Trump may still underestimate the scale of the problem. His visit to the island was made famous by several vignettes: Trump tossing paper towels into a crowd, Trump handing out flashlights while saying that they weren’t needed anymore, Trump express disgust at the idea of drinking purified water, Trump saying that Hurricane Katrina was a “real” catastrophe because far more people died. He visited a neighborhood that had been only lightly damaged by the storm, avoiding places that had been battered more seriously.
Part of those responses were a function of trying to present the best possible face for what was happening on the island in front of the cameras that were following him around. But it also means that Trump internalized downplaying the disaster even as he avoided some of the worst parts of it. Where Trump’s rhetoric and Trump’s actual beliefs overlap is always hard to tell, but in this case they may overlap in a way that’s detrimental to the island.
The storm hit three weeks ago and most people on Puerto Rico still have no power. Access to water is still so limited that people are drinking water from known hazardous waste sites. It’s an ongoing crisis that will certainly take years to resolve. (As the New York Times’s Peter Baker notes, the government was in New Orleans for seven years after Katrina.)
But for Trump, Puerto Rico has also become a political battle. Those seeking assistance on the island had become opponents. And if there’s one thing Trump has shown, it’s that he’s not terribly interested in leveraging the resources of the government for his opponents.