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Trump keeps trying to rewrite reality on his Hurricane Maria response

As Hurricane Florence heads toward the US, the president called the administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico an “unappreciated great job.”

President Trump Meets With Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen And FEMA Administrator Long In The Oval Office
Trump during a press briefing on Hurricane Florence.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

As Hurricane Florence barrels toward the coast of the Carolinas, President Donald Trump is attempting to reassure the American people that he and his administration are ready to deal with the “tremendously big and tremendously wet” storm, as he describes it.

He’s doing this by reminding everyone what an “unappreciated great job” his administration did dealing with Hurricane Maria — which decimated Puerto Rico in September 2017 and left a death toll of 3,000 Americans in its wake.

“I actually think it’s one of the best jobs that’s ever been done,” Trump said Tuesday during a briefing.

He reiterated his claim on Wednesday, tweeting that while everyone already knows his administration aced emergency responses to Harvey, which thrashed Texas in August 2017, and Irma in Florida in September 2017, his government did “an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though [it’s] an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan.”

The statement is startling, if not altogether surprising. Trump has repeatedly credited his administration for its successful handling of Hurricane Maria, despite the facts on the ground.

The 3,000 dead should offer enough pause. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to Maria was also chaotic and disorganized. FEMA contracted out for vital supplies that were perilously slow in reaching the island. Power wasn’t fully restored to the island until this August — nearly a year after the storm hit.

Indeed, this week, CBS News’s David Begnaud provided more evidence of the Trump administration’s mismanagement of Hurricane Maria. He found “what may be millions” of bottles of water, laid out on a tarmac in Puerto Rico, undelivered. They’ve been sitting there since last year, FEMA confirmed to Begnaud.

Trump has blamed any problems with Puerto Rico’s response on its geographic location — an island in the Caribbean — and on its “very poor electricity,” a reference to Puerto Rico’s vulnerable electricity grid.

He’s also attacked Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, which is just one city on the island; on Wednesday, he criticized her “incompetence” and “poor leadership ability.”

In September 2017, in the days immediately after the hurricane hit, Cruz had publicly criticized the administration’s response and gave a dire description of the state of the island: “If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency,” she said.

Trump responded to the mayor’s criticism by deriding her and other officials in Puerto Rico for not working hard enough and “wanting everything done for them.”

Since then, Trump has mostly remained quiet or blamed Puerto Rico’s geography or mismanagement before the storm, but has avoided taking responsibility for any missteps on the part of his administration. Outside factors may have complicated the hurricane response, but Trump calling it a “fantastic job” is jarring given the human toll.

He’s also largely avoided any real fallout from his administration’s botched response, and some Democratic lawmakers have accused Republicans of shielding Trump.

But the president’s defensiveness as Hurricane Florence rapidly approaches the Carolinas is worrisome. The circumstances are different — Maria came after two other hurricanes had battered parts of the US, putting great pressure on FEMA, and Florence is headed toward some Trump-voting states — but his defensiveness and refusal to admit any failings whatsoever has many concerned how Trump will respond to the disaster.

As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted on Tuesday: “If you’re in Florence’s path and considering riding it out, your President just said that a hurricane response where 3,000 die is his measure of success.”