But elsewhere — in corners of the country also hard-hit by natural catastrophes — some leaders may have privately wondered: What about us?
The difference between Alabama and Puerto Rico and California, the president’s critics say, is obvious.
“The president really treats differently those people who have supported him in the past and those people who haven’t,” Brian Ott, a rhetoric professor at Texas Tech University, told The Washington Post. “Not all lives are equal in the eyes of the president. … The lives of red states matter, and the lives of blue states don’t."
It comes down to politics, said Ott, author of “The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.” In the 2016 election, Trump lost California by 30 percentage points. In Puerto Rico, which does not have a say in the presidential election, voters chose Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) over Trump in the Republican primary.
But Trump won Alabama by nearly 28 points.
“The president has politicized recovery efforts in a way we’ve never seen before,” Rafael Lemaitre, who was FEMA’s director of public affairs during the Obama administration, said in an interview. “FEMA needs to be as much of an apolitical agency as possible. It shouldn’t matter whether you live in a red state or a blue state.”
Observers noted a pattern in Trump’s past statements: for liberal leaders in disaster-stricken areas, criticism and intimidation.
In January, Trump leveled an attack against California officials who were battling the aftermath of a spate of forest fires that burned through hundreds of thousands of acres, destroyed thousands of structures and killed scores of people last year. He accused the state of mismanaging its forests and said, without evidence, that California wouldn’t need aid if it took better care of them.
The president then issued an ominous warning: “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money.”
Months earlier, before the deadly Camp and Woolsey fires, Trump gave the state a similar ultimatum.
(The Post has reported it’s unclear whether the president even has the authority to rescind already-approved FEMA funds.)
In October 2017, Trump also threatened to abandon Puerto Rico at the height of a humanitarian crisis after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. In what was then an extraordinary remark by an American president, Trump warned that relief workers would not stay in the U.S. territory “forever.”
“We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” he tweeted.
At the time, the Trump administration faced intense criticism for its underwhelming response to the destruction. During a visit to the island, the president complained that the recovery efforts had “thrown our budget a little out of whack” and tossed rolls of paper towels at residents as if he was shooting free throws. He told his chief of staff at the time, John F. Kelly, that “he did not want a single dollar going to Puerto Rico, because he thought the island was misusing the money and taking advantage of the government,” The Post reported.
The president would go on to dispute the number of people who died in the months after Hurricane Maria made landfall and falsely suggest that Democrats had inflated the toll.
This week, after another one of the worst disasters in recent U.S. history, some commenters denounced Trump’s divergent responses.
“We’re glad Trump is devoting the full resources of FEMA to the people of Alabama after the devastating tornadoes ripped through people’s homes,” tweeted Eugene Gu, a surgeon and one of the Twitter users who sued Trump after the president’s personal account blocked him. “But when other states experienced similar disasters, Trump was totally careless and even mean. The stark contrast is pretty cruel.”
“Wish we had a President who gives the A plus treatment to everyone who loses their families and homes whether they are Republican, Democrat, or Independent,” Gu added.
A spokeswoman from FEMA did not respond to questions about what, exactly, the agency’s “A Plus treatment” entails.