Despite the well-publicized chaos that often reigns in the White House, when major storms hit the country during President Donald Trump’s first year in office, his administration seemed to understand exactly what was at stake. Knowing that the mainstream media would harshly judge failures on the part of the federal government to respond adequately, the Trump administration avoided the mistakes that had helped seal President George W. Bush’s fate during Hurricane Katrina.
But the double standard by which Republican administrations are generally judged when it comes to bad weather has finally come back to bite Trump. On the eve of the first major storm of 2018, the president foolishly responded ongoing critiques of the way the FEMA handled the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in standard Trumpian fashion.
Boiling over with anger at the accusation that 3,000 died on the island due to his neglect or incompetence, Trump took issue with the numbers and then took a page out of Bush’s book. But while Bush gave his infamous pat on the back to his FEMA director at a time when the government response was less than adequate — “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” — Trump praised himself, declaring that his administration had done “an unappreciated great job” in Puerto Rico. He then compounded this blunder by saying that preparations for Hurricane Florence were already “getting tremendous accolades from politicians and the people.”
His attempts to downplay post-hurricane suffering in Puerto Rico as well as his claim that the preparations for Florence were great were characteristically insensitive as well as politically foolish. But Trump’s anger about the way the weather had been weaponized against him by critics was rooted in something real. As his two most recent predecessors both learned, bad weather is a potent political weapon that can undermine or bolster a president.
The Bush presidency may have been undone by an inconclusive and bloody war in Iraq, but the true turning point for him after his reelection in 2004 was Hurricane Katrina.
Honest historians will put most of the blame for the catastrophe in New Orleans on local and state authorities, as well as the disgraceful abandonment of the city by its local first responders. But, as president, Bush took the blame — in no small measure because of the willingness by a hostile mainstream media to impute spurious racial motives to the inability of authorities to immediately aid African Americans made homeless in a flooded city. But a seemingly indifferent flyover of the affected region and his ill-advised decision to publicly praise embattled FEMA director Michael Brown also compounded it.
By contrast, Hurricane Sandy actually helped the political fortunes of President Obama. Learning from Bush’s mistakes, Obama was able to play the hero bringing succor to the suffering — in appearances that were more useful to his reelection only a few days later than planned campaign stops. Better planning was part of that, but he also benefited from the fact that the press was clearly not as interested in highlighting government’s failures or exploiting the plight of the victims.
Just as important in terms of the context for Trump’s troubles, the follow-up to Sandy was never covered with the same critical eye that Bush’s inability to cope with the Katrina aftermath received. FEMA’s slow and often inadequate help to communities devastated by the storm was arguably just as bad as the job it did in the South in 2005. But thanks to Obama’s deft touch as a public spokesman and the lack of a racial angle to hype, it was a storyline few in the mainstream media used, either in the days after the hurricane unexpectedly hit the Northeast coast or in the months afterward.
On Puerto Rico, instead of forgetting the disaster after the storm ended as usually happens, the media employed the same racial angle that hurt Bush after Katrina part of the post-Maria narrative.
Trump’s tweet taking issue with the death toll is correct in a way; at the time of his visit to the island, the official count of those killed directly by the storm was low. Judging the government’s ability to help an island with an already inadequate infrastructure by the same standards as its response to those in Texas or Florida, especially after FEMA had already coped with two previous storms not long before, is also unfair. Trump further rightly resents the notion that he is somehow personally responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people, as some of his most partisan critics seemed to imply.
But his claim that those who lost their lives because of the collapse of services on the island shouldn’t count is as absurd as it is heartless. Claiming success for a task that was clearly not a triumph was also ridiculous. While conservatives have always been correctly skeptical about the ability of government to solve problems, Trump’s inability to detach his ego from anything that happens on his watch has caused him to link his political fortunes with those of FEMA. While that would be a bad bet for any president, it’s especially wrongheaded for a president even more hated by the media than Bush was.
While politicians have always been judged by their ability to deal with disasters, after Katrina there’s little doubt that weather has become a form of politics by other means. The notion that such storms are a product of global warming, even if the science doesn’t really back up such assumptions, is another reason why Republicans are more vulnerable to weather-related attacks than are Democrats, who embrace environmentalist alarmism.
The key for any Republican to survive these kinds of events in spite of built-in press bias is to lower expectations that all will be well. Unfortunately, Trump did the opposite in the hours before Florence struck, giving extra ammunition to the media.
That Trump actually came out of the first two storms of his presidency — Harvey and Irma — without being demonized for his response shows that it’s not impossible for him to succeed in these situations. Competent preparations by FEMA and a president staying on message and avoiding insensitive remarks or braggadocio while making appropriate visits to affected areas won’t work as well for Trump as it did for Obama, but it will stave off political disaster.
Even if Florence turns out not to be as bad a catastrophe as some anticipate, Trump’s self-praise created a benchmark that will only hurt him in the months to come. If he wants to avoid a blowback similar to the one over Puerto Rico, he’ll have to do more than pat himself on the back about the work of an agency that has already sunk one Republican president.