The president has tweeted about the fires only once, on Friday evening.
A search of the president’s Twitter feed and his public comments from Factba.se, plus a search of recent White House news briefings, finds no other mention by him or his press secretary of one of the worst natural disasters to hit the West in modern times.
These two states are running out of money and manpower to fight the blazes eating millions of acres and neighborhoods. One of the only times the president has talked about this was in late August at a news briefing on the coronavirus, where he announced that he had approved an emergency declaration to open up federal funding for California to fight the wildfires. As the crisis escalated, he approved similar funding for Oregon on Thursday — but the public heard about it from a Democratic congressman, not the president.
The president’s relative silence on the West’s wildfire crisis matches up with his relative silence on three other issues: the struggles of Democratic-led states, climate change, and crises that require empathy.
The president has, in the past, leveraged the West’s worsening fire seasons to attack Democratic leaders. Last fall, he even threatened to stop providing emergency aid to California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) if the state didn’t start following the president’s recommendations on how to stop the fires. (And, no, Trump does not have a background in forest management.)
When the president spoke of this season of wildfires in early August at a bill signing, rather than acknowledge the depth of the crisis, he gave advice to the state on how to handle it: “I ordered much more active forest management to prevent catastrophic wildfires. And I’m recommending they do that in California and other locations, and you’ll see how quickly the wildfires stop,” he said.
One way to think about this is framing provided by those who have worked closely with the president, some of whom have said that getting reelected dominates how he thinks about his job. “I am hard pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” writes John Bolton, his former national security adviser, in his recent book.
As the pandemic landed in America, it hit Democratic-run states hard first, and the president regularly attacked Democratic governors for their handling of it as he downplayed its severity. (Knowingly misleading Americans, as we now know.) It wasn’t until the virus started spreading from liberal, coastal states into populous, Republican ones that Trump and his advisers started reevaluating how seriously to take its continued spread, The Washington Post reported.
It’s also no secret that the president spends a lot of time attacking Democrats. His supporters call it punching back. His detractors call it needless partisan warfare, especially when it comes to a pressing issue threatening people’s livelihoods and lives, such as the pandemic or these wildfires.
The second reason the president may be silent on these fires is because of the underlying dynamic that’s making them so dangerous. Wildfires occur naturally, but climate change is making these worse.
Fighting climate change (or at this point, mitigating its effects) is one of Democrat Joe Biden’s top campaign platforms.
But similar to how he approaches aid for Democratic states, climate change is not a part of the president’s vocabulary — unless it’s to attack Democrats’ plans to address it.
The president didn’t start the climate change denial movement, but he’s one of its most prominent supporters, calling it a “hoax.” Some of the few recent-ish tweets on climate change in the president’s feed, according to a Factba.se search are entirely political in nature:
Finally, empathy for human struggle has also never been one of Trump’s strengths. After mass shootings, or hurricanes, or as the death toll climbs from the pandemic, his attempts at empathy are awkward at best (see: tossing paper towels to Puerto Rican hurricane victims) and almost always fall back on politics (see: maintaining he does not take responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic spreading in America).
When you mix together the fact that this crisis is happening in Democratic-run states, is closely tied to a scientific phenomenon he denies even exists, and requires a level of empathy to talk about, you get three potential reasons the president has been so silent on it.
JM Rieger contributed to this report.