This morning’s Saturday Tweetstorm by President Trump continues his self-destructive approach to communications about the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Maria:
The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
But you don’t counter that kind of cynicism by walking into their trap of turning the story into one about partisan feuds.
That’s where the second problem comes in, Team Trump’s political malpractice. The federal response to Puerto Rico’s crisis is enormous and complex, and the challenges are massive. No matter how much we do, there’s always more that needs doing. This is not just an ordinary relief job; nearly the entire island is now without functioning water and electrical systems, and many of the roads are impassible. Even if we can deliver supplies, there’s no real parallel to having to provide power and running water to 3 million people on such short notice, and massive logistical challenges in trying to deliver internally anything we get to the island’s shores. I’ve seen some folks compare this to the Berlin Airlift, but we didn’t drop electricity and running water on Berlin; they had a river and coal-fired power plants they could use when we delivered food and coal. A better parallel might be the Marshall Plan or the colossal relief effort that followed World War One (which made Herbert Hoover a national hero), but neither of those had to be stood up in a matter of days.
If the storyline is about “we’re doing a lot,” you can show people how much you’re doing. Maybe more could be done, or faster; with hindsight, that will always look true, and with the perspective of time there should be a review of what lessons should be learn and what blame may need to be cast. But if you sell people a “good news story,” it’s child’s play for them to point out that there is a ton of bad news right now in Puerto Rico, and will be for quite some time.
And as others have noted, the media can do one of two things on this story: they can focus on what’s happening in Puerto Rico, which involves the hard, expensive work of sending reporters to the field, or they can sit back at home and report on what Trump says on Twitter. The more Trump personalizes the story, the more he lets cash-strapped media outlets save money and catch the low-hanging fruit. Other federal agencies and the military have been using their Twitter feeds to report details of the extensive disaster response; if Trump, with a massively bigger megaphone, focused on pushing that news instead of fighting the Mayor of San Juan, he could force the media to cover that. He actually did some of that this morning, but stepped on the effort with the combative tweets.
Similarly, spats about the president’s personal hands-on involvement are easy stuff for reporters to sink their teeth into without leaving the comfort of DC, since they can pester the White House and FEMA about who the president talked to and when. That’s mostly just a distraction; Trump – unlike Florida Governor Rick Scott, whose tireless response to Irma has rightly won him plaudits – has no experience managing a disaster response or even a large organization, so beyond public leadership, his day-to-day management is a pretty negligible factor. There are two schools of thought here on how to manage this kind of response from the top: sometimes a hands-on leader can keep people on their toes wanting to constantly report progress, but then the need of the people doing the job to interrupt it for constant briefings can also be a waste of critical resources. Sometimes, it’s just as effective for the man on top to send down the message that “you have a blank check, do what has to be done, use whatever resources you need, just go out there and help people.” But Trump’s team – especially given the need to present Trump as a Man of Action – hasn’t really delivered a unified message of that kind.
The reality of the Trump Administration below the level of the president is often rather different than the impression you get from listening to Trump; he is frequently his own worst enemy, and that’s true once again as the Navy, FEMA and other agencies move heaven and earth to respond to a humanitarian crisis afflicting over three million American citizens.