The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Puerto Rico is a big moment for Trump — and a fraught one

Residents of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, gather their strength as they start to clean up and rebuild on Sept. 24. (Video: Reuters)

Update: After this post went up, Trump began tweeting about Puerto Rico on Monday night, reflecting on the magnitude of the devastation. Interestingly, he argues that the U.S. territory was already in very bad shape -- apparently setting expectations for a long, arduous and politically fraught recovery process.

As Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico last week, The Washington Post-ABC News poll was in the field. The poll asked people what they thought of President Trump's responses to two other hurricanes, and Trump got strong marks: By a 2-to-1 margin, people gave him a rare (for him) thumbs-up on Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

But as we're starting to see, Puerto Rico could be the biggest natural-disaster test of Trump's presidency, and Trump doesn't seem nearly as preoccupied with it as he was with the other two hurricanes. Maria seems to have found one of his blind spots, in fact. And that could turn out to be a very bad, and tragic, miscalculation.

As The Washington Post's Philip Bump notes, Trump spent the weekend tweeting about the NFL, while a promised visit to the U.S. commonwealth still hasn't materialized. Trump tweeted once about it last week and spoke with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, and the White House announced Monday that it was sending top officials to the island. Other than that, we haven't seen much.

Meanwhile, the devastation on the island of more than 3 million people is slowly coming into focus. Here's what The Post's Samantha Schmidt and Joel Achenbach wrote Sunday night in their must-read piece:

Four days after a major hurricane battered Puerto Rico, leaving the entire island in a communications and power blackout, regions outside San Juan remained disconnected from the rest of the island — and the world. Juncos, in a mountainous region southeast of the capital that was slammed with Maria’s most powerful winds, remains isolated, alone, afraid.
For many residents, the challenge of accessing the essentials of modern life — gasoline, cash, food, water — began to sink in. And government officials had no answers for them. Estimates for the return of electricity and basic services will be measured not in days but in weeks and months. For those most vulnerable, far too long.
Many have been openly wondering when help will arrive, whether from local officials or from the federal government. The first thing some villagers ask when they see outsiders: “Are you FEMA?”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is warning that his government needs broader assistance from the federal government, calling on the Pentagon especially to provide more aid for law enforcement and transportation. Rosselló said he’s also worried that Congress will shortchange his island once the initial wave of emergency relief is gone.
“We still need some more help. This is clearly a critical disaster in Puerto Rico,” he said Sunday night. “It can’t be minimized and we can’t start overlooking us now that the storm passed, because the danger lurks.”

As most news reports like this one will reinforce, this tragedy is playing out on U.S. soil. Puerto Rico is an American territory whose citizens carry U.S. passports. The fact that it's not a state may be part of the reason for the pretty muted response from the president — and the lack of wall-to-wall news coverage. If this same thing happened in Florida or the Gulf Coast, you can bet it would be different.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Sept. 25 that "the federal response has been anything but slow" to aid Puerto Rico. (Video: Reuters, Photo: SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Reuters)

But another reason is that it's simply tough to know the full extent of the devastation and the challenges ahead at this point. As Schmidt and Achenbach wrote, the island still has no electricity, making communication difficult. Even its governor could speak to The Post only via a cellphone with spotty coverage. And if you can't communicate, you can't know how bad it is in far-flung areas. Five days later, we're still learning plenty.

A third reason for the tepid government response may be the fact that we've just had two hurricanes on the mainland that got huge attention and plenty of resources. A third hurricane in three weeks is going to be fighting for attention and resources regardless.

For all of these reasons, it's not hard to see Trump being slow to recognize the challenge his presidency now faces. Layer on top of that the fact that Puerto Rico is overwhelmingly Hispanic and that this situation could lead to lots and lots of displaced residents, and there are all kinds of thorny issues involved for a president with Trump's track record. There will be a watchful eye on everything he does, and given his lack of emphasis on the devastation so far, the criticism is already picking up.

We haven't seen a ton of it yet — likely because even would-be critics are still trying to sort through what Maria left in its wake — but make no mistake: This is a tragedy that any president would do well to be proactive about. By virtue of his passing grade on the previous two hurricanes and a host of other variables, it's possible Trump doesn't quite grasp that yet. But he should.