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‘Tremendously big’: Trump reaches for superlatives in the face of calamity

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

President Trump warned on Sept. 11 of the "tremendous amounts of water" that Hurricane Florence will bring, and compared it to Hurricane Harvey. (Video: The Washington Post)

Flanked in the Oval Office by charts showing the path of Hurricane Florence, President Trump on Tuesday issued a warning about the potentially catastrophic storm that at times felt strangely exuberant.

“Tremendously big and tremendously wet — tremendous amounts of water,” Trump said, expressing something close to admiration at the expected precipitation.

Then the president turned to bragging about the federal response to past storms during his tenure, including Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — though the estimate of nearly 3,000 excess deaths attributed to that storm ranks it among the deadliest in U.S. history.

“I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success,” he asserted.

President Trump arrived in Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, to honor the passengers and crew of Flight 93. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump has long struggled with public displays of empathy and with rising to the role of consoler in chief. In a range of situations — from deadly shootings and natural disasters to Tuesday’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — Trump has responded in ways that, at best, seem ill-suited to the somberness of the events.

“Fundamentally he’s a showman, not a statesman, and he sees every opportunity as an audience to be impressed or rallied, not as constituents in his care to be comforted and inspired,” said Jon Meacham, a historian and author of “The Soul of America.” “It returns to the idea that he’s a promoter more than he is a president.”

Storms, like the one bearing down on the East Coast this week, have offered a particularly revealing glimpse into Trump’s penchant for the dramatic — a habit of narrating even deadly crises in superlative terms that render him more a rubbernecking bystander than a conventional commander in chief.

As Hurricane Harvey threatened the Gulf Coast last year, for example, Trump enthused on Twitter, “Many people are now saying that this is the worst storm/hurricane they have ever seen.” After Maria left Puerto Rico devastated weeks later, Trump posed for selfies, tossed paper towels into a crowd like basketballs and described his visit to the storm-ravaged island as “really lovely.”

And this week, as Florence barreled toward the Carolinas, Trump shared an image of the churning eye of the storm as if he were a Weather Channel aficionado. “The storm looks very bad!” he tweeted.

The theme has been consistent throughout his time in office. During a private meeting at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in June, the president spoke of the upcoming hurricane season the way he might have described the latest episode of his former NBC reality show, “The Apprentice,” according to audio obtained by The Washington Post.

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

In public remarks at FEMA the same day, the president marveled at the “record water drop” and how “the storms were really historic in their severity,” before urging federal officials to rise to the challenge, sounding a bit like a high school football coach encouraging his team before the big game. “As we enter hurricane season again — here we go. Right? You’re ready?” he said. 

“In times of trial and disaster, people really look to the president to express the collective concern of the country for the victims,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to former president Barack Obama. “That empathy is an essential part of the job. As in Puerto Rico, Trump seems so self-absorbed — so focused on getting credit — that the victims seem far removed from his concerns.” 

Tuesday’s 9/11 anniversary was no exception. Trump began the day with morning tweets, roundly described as tone-deaf, in which he excoriated his own Justice Department, praised his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani — who was New York mayor on Sept. 11, 2001 — and wrote, with incongruous enthusiasm, “17 years since September 11!” 

As he arrived at a memorial service for Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa., news photographers also captured a jarring tableau: The president pumping his fists as he greeted supporters in a scene that felt more appropriate at a “Make America Great Again” political rally than a melancholy remembrance for nearly 3,000 lives lost.

Trump ultimately did deliver a staid speech commemorating the tragedy. 

Steve Schmidt, a former Republican strategist who left the party because of his disgust with Trump, said that 9/11 especially was “a hinge moment in history” that Trump — a Queens-born, Manhattan real estate developer — should be able to appreciate.

“How can you not emotionally connect to this and how can you be so obtuse to not understand the dignity of this day?” Schmidt said.

But, he added, Trump “has no capacity for the duties of the office when it comes to expressions of dignity, empathy, and filling the chair that he is a temporary custodian of, that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln once sat in.”

Trump has long attracted criticism for an odd exuberance — and a fondness for exclamation points — in the face of tragedy.

After the death of boxing champion Muhammad Ali, Trump wrote on Twitter: “Muhammad Ali is dead at 74! A truly great champion and wonderful guy. He will be missed by all!”

After the death of Nancy Reagan, Trump tweeted that she was an “amazing woman” before also exclaiming, “She will be missed!” 

In other moments before and after reaching the White House, Trump has placed himself squarely at the center of unfolding calamity.

After the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which left 49 dead and dozens more injured, the Republican presidential candidate tied the tragedy to his tough rhetoric on terrorism. “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he wrote on Twitter. “I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” 

And when recounting his decision to bomb Syria last year in an interview, Trump shared that he happened to be enjoying “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen” when he opted to unleash the United States’ military might. He went on to mention “cake” or “dessert” five times in his retelling the story of the Syrian airstrikes. 

Meacham said Trump often falls short of the emotional response expected by modern leaders because he views the office as more about him than the institution of the presidency. 

“To perform the presidential pastoral function, one has to feel one’s broader and deep connection to the moment, in its literal sense, and to the moment of a national occasion,” Meacham said. “Instead, Trump has consistently proven that to him, the presidency is not about consolation or inspiration but has the production values of an infomercial.”

Aaron Blake, Josh Dawsey and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.