An estimated 3,000 people died after the devastating Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico last year. Large swaths of the island were without power for months. FEMA was short thousands of workers and underestimated how much food and supplies were needed in the recovery, according to a federal government report.
But in the eyes of President Trump, the government’s response was a raging success — and one he touted this week as a monstrous hurricane pinwheeled toward the Carolinas.
“We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan),” he wrote Wednesday on Twitter.
It’s a frequent tactic of the president — elevate a widely perceived failure or mistake and defend it as a great triumph while attacking his critics. His detractors say it is shameless and sometimes comical gaslighting; supporters say he is just a master marketer who uses hyperbole and always shows strength.
“You just never give an inch or admit any mistake in public,” said Sam Nunberg, a former aide describing Trump’s mind-set.
Inside the administration, firing James B. Comey as FBI director in May 2017 is widely perceived as an original sin that spun a cascade of other problems for the White House — including the creation of a special counsel’s investigation that has tormented the president and includes an obstruction-of-justice inquiry. He was repeatedly counseled against the firing by top aides such as former chief of staff Reince Priebus, White House counsel Donald McGahn and former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who have since faced hours of questioning over Trump’s actions as part of the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe.
But rather than show any signs of regret, the president has instead championed Comey’s firing, both publicly and privately, as a smart decision.
“I did a great service to the people in firing him!” Trump tweeted this summer.
Trump faced withering criticism, even from supporters, for standing on a podium in Helsinki in July and cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin while seeming to question U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election and entertaining the idea of letting Russian law enforcement officials question American citizens.
But to hear Trump tell it these days, it was one of his finest hours.
“One of my best meetings ever was with Vladimir Putin,” he said earlier this month, before attacking the “fakers,” or his short-term for the “fake news media.”
This week, he has repeatedly brought up Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” — continuously calling attention to a portrayal of his White House as incompetent and veering toward a breakdown. Trump says the book is a “scam” and that his White House is a “smooth running machine.”
Aides say that Trump’s tendency to focus on and defend his perceived failures is fueled by a mix of potent factors. He obsesses over negative news coverage sometimes long after the topic has changed. He often marvels that he can make the cable news chyrons change. And he is constantly selling himself — regardless of who is in front of him and no matter the topic.
Sometimes, he is trying to preempt criticism that he knows is likely to revive itself, like before this week’s hurricane. And he tells senior aides that his supporters will believe his version of events.
It leads to awkward encounters and surreal situations for those around him. His comments this week on the administration’s handling of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico following last year’s hurricane quickly morphed from a defense of how a difficult situation was handled to a declaration that it couldn’t have gone better.
It was “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday.
It was a statement that drew immediate condemnations and questions about how Trump could characterize the recovery effort as such a success especially on the heels of a study that estimated there were nearly 3,000 excess deaths in Puerto Rico due to the hurricane.
“You know there are no A-pluses in disaster recovery. That letter doesn’t exist,” said Marc Ferzan, who led recovery in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy and is now a consultant.
Trump also broods over perceived mistakes, even if he won’t admit they are missteps. He has repeatedly brought up to aides his decision to endorse Roy Moore in the Senate race in Alabama last year. Moore lost after The Washington Post reported on allegations that he pursued and sexually assaulted teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
“The president asks me all the time, ‘Why did Roy Moore lose?’” Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, recently said at a New York fundraiser.
He has also complained that aides publicly admitted mistakes earlier this year over their handling of allegations that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter was emotionally and physically abusive toward his two ex-wives. “You should have never apologized,” he told a group of communications aides, according to two people. “You don’t ever apologize.”
Trump observers and critics said that the president’s refusal to admit mistakes and to go a step further and declare them smart moves has long been part of how he operates.
“One of his great strengths is that he lives in his own reality distortion field — there is this narrative going on all the time in his head about how successful he is, how great he is — one of the things that allows him to plow ahead after he makes mistakes,” said Timothy O’Brien, a longtime Trump biographer.