The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In private FEMA remarks, Trump’s focus strays from hurricanes

First lady Melania Trump made her first public appearance in nearly a month on June 6, appearing alongside President Trump at the FEMA headquarters. (Video: The Washington Post)

The meeting was supposed to be about hurricane preparedness, as disaster officials gathered at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters days after the start of the 2018 season.

But President Trump had a lot else on his mind, turning the closed-door discussion into soliloquies on his prowess in negotiating airplane deals, his popularity, the effectiveness of his political endorsements, the Republican Party’s fortunes, the vagaries of Defense Department purchasing guidelines, his dislike of magnetized launch equipment on aircraft carriers, his unending love of coal and his breezy optimism about his planned Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“It’s an interesting journey. It’s called the land of the unknown — who knows? We’ll maybe make a deal. Maybe not. As I say to everybody, are you going to make a deal?” Trump said, according to audio of the FEMA meeting obtained by The Washington Post. “Maybe and maybe not. Who knows?”

The president’s 40-minute briefing session behind closed-doors came after he spoke to cameras for about 15 minutes. He briefly referred to Puerto Rico — where health authorities now estimate there were about 1,400 additional deaths following Hurricane Maria, compared to the same period the previous year. The Trump administration was roundly criticized for its performance, and hundreds of thousands in the U.S. territory remain without electricity.

Trump did not mention Puerto Rico’s victims but thanked Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) for helping and noted that the power company was “in bankruptcy prior to the hurricane.” He said the recovery was a “tough job.” He also mentioned Puerto Rico in passing once with the cameras rolling.

“There has never been a season like the last 12 or 13 months,” he said of the hurricane season. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Hurricane briefings usually give politicians a chance to look decisive, and Trump bragged to friends last fall that his administration had handled a slew of hurricanes quite well. Many of Trump’s thoughts Thursday, however, did not relate to hurricanes.

When Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan began speaking, Trump within 10 seconds moved the conversation to negotiating airplane prices. He said the government was getting ripped off on ships and planes because the “ordering process for the military is so bad. . . . It’s not a competitive bid.”

“We saved $1.6 billion on Air Force One,” he said. “Can you believe it? I got involved in the negotiations. The press refuses to report that, but that’s okay. . . . People were really surprised.”

Military officials have not been able to explain where Trump got such a figure. A Defense Department official told Bloomberg News this year that the department had no information to back up that claim.

“I got involved with Boeing and was able to cut down the F-18 by millions of dollars,” Trump added.

He then complained that the military was too frequently buying new and in his view, unnecessary, equipment — citing aircraft technology as an example.

“Part of it is, they want to have all new. Instead of having the system that throws the aircraft off the [ship], which was always steam,” he said. “They now have magnets. They’re using magnets instead of steam. . . . They spent hundreds of millions of dollars, I’m hearing not great things about it. It’s frankly ridiculous.”

The room did not respond to his assessment. Shanahan said he would brief Trump and Kelly on changes to the guidelines soon and would begin bringing him receipts. Trump said he appreciated that.

A few minutes later, he analyzed election results in California, noting that he endorsed the Republican gubernatorial candidate, who made it onto the November ballot. Trump is highly unpopular in California, according to public and White House polls, with under a 40 percent approval rating. He attacked Gavin Newsom, the Democrat, saying he had “done nothing.”

 “I endorsed him,” he said of Republican John Cox. “He really has been a very good candidate. I watched him last night. . . . We won every seat that I endorsed. The ones we didn’t give, they didn’t do too well, as you probably know.”

Trump touted generic polls that show Republicans closing the gap in the midterm elections before dismissing the idea of generic polls. He said the Republican Party was down 17 points two months ago in one unnamed poll. Now, he said, that was changing.

“I don’t know if that means anything. I’ve never heard of a generic poll. I’m not sure I believe in a generic poll when you have so many races between the Senate and the House,” he said. “We’ve never been up in a generic poll, and now we’re up in two of them. . . . The Republican Party has . . . never been up in generic polls. And now it’s up in two of them.” 

For several minutes, Trump told the gathered officials, and others dialed in via a secure line, about the economy, ticking off companies and taking credit for their successes. 

Trump lauded the Taiwanese company Foxconn for creating a plant in Wisconsin, where it will make Apple equipment, and said he was pleased with Apple CEO Tim Cook for promising to build a “hell of a nice plant.” He said it would not have happened without him.

The Foxconn deal has drawn questions about the $3 billion incentive package the state approved, The Washington Post has reported.

“In the old days, I would have been the real estate broker in that deal,” Trump said of the Foxconn project.

He lauded Exxon for promising an investment of $60 billion. The company has said it is investing $50 billion. Some of the projects were already planned, but the company said more than $35 billion was for unannounced projects.

“Money they would have never spent without us,” the president said. 

 “We’re setting records like we’ve never seen before,” Trump said. “Whether it’s the employment records I went over, whether it’s the number of companies pouring into the country. We have tremendous number of companies coming back. Nobody had any idea this was going to happen. I did. . . . Things are happening that they’ve never seen before.”

 He encouraged Energy Secretary Rick Perry to make an announcement about helping coal companies. “I’d love to put it out — ‘clean coal, nuclear,’ it’s a very important message,” he said. He said Perry needed to have a news conference. The energy secretary acquiesced.

More than anything, Trump was determined to convince the Cabinet members that he was doing a terrific job – and that they were, too. In private, Trump has derided many of his Cabinet members and has fired several. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who has repeatedly clashed with Trump over immigration, thanked him for his “unfailing support of the department.” 

 “I understand a big story is being done in a major newspaper talking about what a great Cabinet this is,” he said, without specifying the outlet. “What a great Cabinet this has turned out to be.”

“Our level of popularity is great,” he added. 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story relied on a Harvard University study estimate for the number of deaths in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. The Puerto Rico Department of Health has released its own official estimate, and the story has been updated to reflect that figure.