In his responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, President Trump showed real political acumen. Though Democrats were waiting to pounce at the least sign of inaction, incompetence, or indifference to suffering from the White House, the administration managed to avoid giving them the ammunition they needed to do to him what they did to George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, with Puerto Rico devastated and recovery efforts understandably slow, the pendulum seems to have swung back toward the Democrats: While their effort to blame Trump for bad weather in Texas and Florida flopped, they’ve succeeded to some extent in blaming him for bad weather in the Caribbean.
Trump himself, it must be admitted, is the primary reason for that success: Though federal relief efforts in Puerto Rico are not the complete disaster that some liberals are claiming, the president no longer appears willing to play the political game he played so well just a few weeks ago.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, presidents and their underlings are usually eager to appear as if they are in charge of recovery efforts, and careful not to seem indifferent or complacent. Trump and his subordinates satisfied those requirements in the wake of Harvey and then Irma, frustrating liberals eager to tear him apart. But last week, several days after the Maria hit Puerto Rico, the liberal press woke up to the fact that the island may have been hit even harder than New Orleans was by Katrina.
And when they did, the Trump administration gave them all the ammunition they required.
It began with acting homeland-security secretary Elaine Duke’s effort to detail all the government had been doing in Puerto Rico. Rather than merely list the ongoing efforts to aid the stricken island, she sought to put a positive spin on the tragedy by claiming that those efforts constituted a “good news story.”
That was all San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz needed to become an instant cable-news sensation. Cruz had been doing her best to draw attention to a tragedy that had not, at least up until that point, gotten the sort of wall-to-wall press coverage that Harvey and Irma received. But she took Duke’s words out of context to blast the administration for not doing enough to help and the media lapped it up.
What followed then was the inevitable angry response from the president on Twitter. That in turn made the mayor into a liberal heroine and furthered the perception that Trump was picking a fight with the very victims he was supposed to be helping. All hope of conveying the nuances of the situation — the sorry state of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure before the storm, the difficulty of delivering supplies to the island given heavy damage to its airports, the substance of the administration’s relief efforts — was then lost.
The next day, Trump compounded the problem by appearing at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J., where he dedicated the victory of the U.S. team in the Presidents Cup to the victims of Hurricane Maria. In other circumstances and with another president, the mention of the storm might have been interpreted as a gesture of sympathy or a way of drawing attention to humanitarian efforts. But Trump’s earlier fight with Cruz had made it seem as if he was focused on protecting his own image rather than aiding Puerto Ricans in their time of need, and in that context the Presidents Cup appearance was received by many as an empty gesture.
That none of this has much to do with what is happening in Puerto Rico is obvious.
Was it actually inappropriate for the president to be at a golf tournament when U.S. citizens were dealing with the aftermath of a devastating hurricane? That depends on whom you ask. But the administration should at least have known that it would seem inappropriate to some substantial portion of the public. Optics matter above all else in such cases.
George W. Bush eventually gave up playing golf during his presidency because he understood that any photos of him out on the fairway while American troops were fighting in the Middle East would make it seem as if he were indifferent to their sacrifice.
President Obama resisted that impulse and stuck to his vacation schedule no matter what was happening overseas or how high floodwaters ran in Louisiana. But during Hurricane Sandy — which struck in the final weeks of his 2012 reelection campaign — he did manage to act and speak in a manner that conveyed concern and competence even if the recovery effort was a mess in the long term. That proved that a skillful presidential actor could turn bad weather into an asset rather than an opening for his critics.
Trump knows he will never get the sort of sympathetic coverage Obama could count on and, unlike Bush, sees no need to try appeasing critics who wouldn’t give him credit for caring even if he immediately flew to Puerto Rico and camped out in Cruz’s office.
That none of this has much to do with what is happening in Puerto Rico is obvious. Even though federal aid is pouring in, the island’s decimated roads are in many cases incapable of getting it to those in need. While it is arguable that Washington could have acted with more resources and urgency in the first days after the storm hit, it’s not clear that there’s anything the Trump administration could have done then to prevent the problems the island is dealing with now.
Puerto Ricans need help now more than ever, and their fellow Americans are responding with massive charitable and governmental efforts. That can and must continue. But for all of the pious outrage being voiced on the subject, there’s little evidence that the latest round of criticism directed at Trump is anything more than the crocodile tears of people who will seize on any pretext to attack him.