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Politics trumps Puerto Rico

A real crisis comes and the president can’t handle it.

President Donald Trump Returns to the White House Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Speaking to reporters in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico on a belated visit after two straight weekends golfing, Donald Trump offered by way of words of comfort the observation that “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack." Earlier in the day, before departing from Washington, Trump remarked to the press pool that “on a local level, they have to give us more help.”

On Friday, though, Trump proclaimed the whole operation a huge success arguing that “it’s been incredible the results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life.”

The reality on the ground, as reported by Vox’s Eliza Barclay, is that the death toll hasn’t been updated in almost a week thanks to the breakdown of communications and basic government services. Many of us have wondered, for months, what would happen when the Trump administration finally had to face a real crisis caused by external events rather than a presidential temper tantrum or some bad tweets. And the answer is now apparent in across Puerto Rico where much of the population remains without access to clean drinking water.

To an extent, the United States of America held up surprisingly well from Inauguration Day until September 20 or so. The ongoing degradation of American civic institutions, at a minimum, did not have an immediate negative impact on the typical person’s life.

But the world is beginning to draw a straight line from the devastation in Puerto Rico to the White House. Trump’s instinct so far is to turn the island’s devastation into another front in culture war politics, a strategy that could help his own political career survive.

The rest of us will just have to pray for good luck.

The president watches too much TV

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were massive cable television events that dominated coverage on all the networks. MSNBC went so all in on storm news that it sent Chris Hayes out in a windbreaker to stand around in the wind in Naples, Florida.

But as Dhrumil Mehta has shown at FiveThirtyEight, Maria was relatively invisible on cable.

“People on TV news shows spoke significantly fewer sentences about Hurricane Maria than about Hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” he writes, and “the spike in conversation about Puerto Rico right as the hurricane hit was also much smaller than the spike in mentions of Texas and Florida.”

Cable producers surely had their reasons for this. But something anyone in the media could tell you is that cable producers’ news judgment is not an infallible guide to the substantive importance of various stories. In particular, a broad range of issues — potentially including natural disasters in outlying US territories — have an asymmetrical quality to them, where if handled appropriately most people won’t care that much, but if botched it eventually becomes a big deal.

This is why traditionally presidents have relied upon staff and the massive information-gathering capabilities of the American government for information rather than letting television set the agenda. Trump has a different philosophy, however, and spent the post-storm Saturday glued to his television and letting the hosts of Fox & Friends drag him into an ill-advised Twitter spat with Steph Curry and various NFL players.

Because Trump wasn’t paying attention, the situation evolved into a catastrophe. And because the situation evolved into a catastrophe, it eventually ended up on television.

The Washington Post reports that by Monday, Trump “was becoming frustrated by the coverage he was seeing on TV.”

Trump can’t unring the bell of a slow response

Now that Trump’s inadequate response to Maria’s devastation has become a big issue, the Trump administration is full of excuses for why their response was so inadequate:

  • Trump emphasized in public remarks on Friday that Puerto Rico is “an island surrounded by water,” which makes relief difficult.
  • An anonymous administration officials told the Washington Post that “the Department of Defense, FEMA and the federal government are having to step in to fulfill state and municipal functions that we normally just support.”
  • Officials have also cited the Posse Comitatus Act as a complicating factor that helps explain why Trump was so much slower to dispatch assistance to Puerto Rico than the Obama administration was to send help to Haiti after it was devastated by an earthquake in 2010.
  • Last but by no means least, the reality is that this was a really big disaster. The storm was huge and powerful, and it knocked out electricity and communications — that’s hard to deal with.

This is all true, and it goes to show that being president of the United States is a difficult job. But none of the issues the federal response is wrestling with were unknown in advance. The world had days of warning that a hurricane was heading toward Puerto Rico. The perilous state of the island’s electrical grid has been apparent for years — as has the weak financial health of its electrical utility and municipal governments.

A president who was focused on his job could have asked in advance what the plan was for a hurricane strike on Puerto Rico. He would have discovered that since Puerto Rico is part of the United States, FEMA is the default lead agency, but it’s the US military that has the ships and helicopters that would be needed to get supplies into the interior of a wrecked island. And he could have worked something out. Instead, he didn’t get worked up about Puerto Rico until more than a week after the storm hit, when he saw the mayor of San Juan lambasting him on television. He lashed out with his usual playbook — one that will only make things worse.

Trump turns everything into a culture war

The substantive problem that Trump — and America — is now facing is that you can’t go back in time and do the preparatory work that should have been done. You can’t pre-position satellite phones, schedule timely visits from top administration officials, or quickly dispatch ships and helicopters once you’re starting with an eight-day lag. The best you can do is admit you were too slow and throw everything you’ve got at it.

But admitting wrongdoing isn’t part of Trump’s playbook.

Defensiveness and counterpunching is.

Many people will see more than a hint of racism here in the implication that Puerto Ricans are too lazy to help themselves.

And the specter of Trump once again being called a racist by liberals will once again help rally to his side the large segment of the white population that believes anti-white discrimination is a big problem in the United States. Trump, meanwhile, portrays criticism of him, personally, as criticism of heroic soldiers and first responders.

Trump doesn’t know much about governing. But he is very good at channeling every discussion into the same handful of culture war tropes. Shifting the discussion in this direction rather than adopting a tone of humility will, of course, only make substantive recovery more difficult by polarizing the topic in Congress and among the public.

There are no “adults in the room”

Retired Gen. John Kelly’s background and experience are unusual for a White House chief of staff, but as it happens, his final military assignment was as commander of American military forces in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean basin — basically perfect preparation for the crisis that happens to have struck.

It’s of course entirely possible that things would be going even worse if Reince Priebus were still in charge, but on its face, Kelly’s experience does not seem to be doing any good. And that should be a stake through the heart of the notion that some stable of “adults in the room” are going to save the country from having made a spectacularly inappropriate choice of chief executive.

The one thing we can say for sure is that it’s essentially inconceivable that the next objectively difficult crisis that Trump fumbles will be more in Kelly’s wheelhouse than a disaster requiring a military response in the Caribbean. We’re witnessing the Trump administration at peak performance, and it’s appalling. Bismarck supposedly said that God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America. If we’re lucky, he’ll be proven right, and nothing much else bad will happen for the next three years. If not, buckle your seat belts.

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