Critics in both Puerto Rico and on the mainland have found no shortage of reasons to criticize President Donald Trump’s “disgraceful,” “trash,” and “lukewarm” response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria.
But in the halls of Congress, Republican senators are full of nothing but rave reviews for their party’s president, telling a vastly different — and more positive — story of Trump’s handling of the natural disaster.
Where some experts have seen inaction and indifference, Republican senators see a federal government quickly mobilizing under difficult circumstances. Where skeptics watch a president who appears more interested in whipping up a culture war over the national anthem than what’s happening on the ground in Puerto Rico, Republican senators see a president with a firm command of the unfolding crisis.
“It seems to me the president did the best as he could to get ahead of the issue,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) said. “He jumped on it as quickly as he could.”
Asked about Trump’s decision to lash out at the mayor of San Juan on Twitter for her allegedly “poor leadership,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) responded: “Well, he gets a little irritated. As he should.”
But why did Trump spend the first several days of the disaster tweeting about protests at NFL games instead of focusing federal attention on the disaster?
“I don’t remember any president going right down to the area hit by a natural disaster and start pitching in personally,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) countered.
Did some GOP senators at least buy the criticisms that the disaster was foreseen by the National Weather Service, and that the administration should have been better prepared?
“I don’t know how you could be more alert,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) offered.
Democrats, like Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, pointed out after a briefing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that in his opinion, “there's no plan or strategy — they had no precise estimate of how much a relief package should be.”
On Monday, Vox interviewed eight different senators — six Republicans and two Democrats — about Trump’s preparation for and handling of Hurricane Maria. Below are transcripts of those conversations. Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Tim Scott (R-SC) were asked about the response but declined to comment.
The GOP senators made clear that Republican Party is firmly prepared to defend Trump’s handling of the natural disaster — even amid mounting evidence that his team botched initial preparations, and then squandered crucial days before turning to face the crisis at hand.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT): “Almost everybody tries to turn everything into a political football with him”
Do you think President Trump's response to the disaster in Puerto Rico has been timely and efficient?
Under the circumstances, nothing's ever going to be totally adequate because everything is just so complex. But under the circumstances, he's doing the best anybody could do.
How do you feel about him suggesting that Puerto Rico's leadership was ungrateful?
Well, he gets a little irritated. As he should. Almost everybody tries to turn everything into a political football with him, because they think they can, you know, steer him because he is a character. And a great character at that.
So I don't have any problem with that. He ought to stick with the way he feels. And, frankly, they are trying to do that to him. They're not fair.
This is the mayor of San Juan who is pulling people to safety and—
No, wait — I empathize with the mayor. On the other hand, on the other hand the mayor shouldn’t be running down the president of the United States — he’s doing the best that he can.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA): “Whenever things are stressful, there’s going to be finger-pointing”
I was wondering what you think of the Trump administration’s response to what’s happened in Puerto Rico. Has it been up to speed and efficient? Obviously, there’s been a great deal of back-and-forth with the mayor of San Juan.
I have not followed the back-and-forth between the mayor of San Juan and the president.
I do know the president made the unprecedented decision to cover 100 percent of the expenses, waiving the state portion, and that is highly significant — as the state has labored under the state match requirement, while knowing that the bankruptcy of the Puerto Rican government made it impossible for them to meet that requirement. That was incredibly magnanimous.
Logistically, I know there’s a great deal of difficulty — they’re afraid to truck things in because they’re not sure their bridges are sturdy. So to move beyond San Juan — there’s a problem there.
Whenever things are stressful, there’s going to be finger-pointing, even if the situation is inherently stressful.
There was a report in the Washington Post that said Trump spent the first several days after the disaster playing golf and tweeting about NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem, and that that may have impeded FEMA’s and the federal government’s response.
There was another report that FEMA may not have authorized the same number of resources as it did after Harvey and Irma.
Do you think the president personally directs these responses?
I’m reading right now about [Dwight] Eisenhower and FDR. They point their folks in a direction, and then they [the staff] execute.
You know the reason we have a dollar bill? It was because FDR told the guy who was going to be his incoming secretary of Treasury, “Go figure out how to get currency” — and we never had dollar bills before then. And [the then-treasury secretary] brought everyone together and brought back a plan for before the inauguration, and he said, “Sure, do it.”
Now, that’s how that works.
But the argument is that Trump has not done that step of telling FEMA, “You have to pay attention to—”
Pah! Those guys are wired — they’re wired to kick in that response. There are logistical problems; it’s six days, you have a port which is not functioning, you have an airport that can only land every 15 minutes, you have an electrical grid that is down — I can go on.
I think some people confuse logistical problems of resupplying an island, as opposed to Texas and Florida, with a lack of concern. There are certain logistical impediments that I think if you take a step back and look at, you can say, “I kind of get it.”
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA): “It’s the people who hate Trump trying to make him look bad”
What do you think of President Trump's response to the disaster in Puerto Rico? Were they prepared for this as they should have been?
I think it was a horrible storm and the island makes logistics much more difficult than what happens on the continental United States, but that everybody is doing the best they can.
I’m curious what you think of Trump going out and criticizing San Juan’s mayor.
I don’t know enough to judge what happened.
This much I do know: I’ve been through hurricanes — it doesn’t matter how much you prepare, there’s still the shock of the aftermath. The situation is aggravated by the fact of the logistics — it’s an island.
There were a lot of difficult things about Katrina — believe me. But one of them was the fact that as soon as it was over, everyone tried scoring political points — our Democratic governor against the Republican administration in Washington, and vice versa.
It got all politicized, and I’d hate to see this get politicized. A pox on everybody’s house who wants to politicize this.
It’s never fast enough; you can’t get help to people fast enough ever. We learned a lot from Katrina and Harvey, but this one is more complicated.
The criticism that Trump spent a lot of time on the golf course, tweeting about the NFL protests rather than focusing on the hurricane — is there anything to that criticism?
I don’t think so. I don’t remember any president going right down to the area hit by a natural disaster and start pitching in personally. If anything, when they go down there it can be a distraction.
I think that’s all a bunch of nonsense. It’s irrelevant. It’s people trying to score political points. That’s all it is. It’s the people who hate Trump trying to make him look bad. I think it’s a pox on all their houses.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): “I’ll leave it to the folks in the press”
How do you feel about the Trump administration’s response to the Puerto Rico crisis?
I’ll leave it to the folks in the press to provide the running color commentary day-to-day.
Puerto Rico was hit by a massive storm, and we need to be doing everything possible to mobilize relief.
There’s tons of criticism that it took too long for the Jones Act to be waived, for the military to be mobilized, that there’s still—
As I said, I have every faith that members of the media will provide running color commentary and criticism of the administration. I don’t need to add my voice to that chorus.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL): “I don’t know how you could be more alert”
I’m curious what you think of the Trump administration’s response to the crisis in Puerto Rico.
Well, I think they’re responding.
It’s kind of a unique situation, in a sense — we should do everything we can because they’re American citizens. The problem is logistics. I’m looking at the power failures, and you can’t drive trucks down there the way you could in Texas or New York or anywhere else.
So, I think it will work out.
The Washington Post has written about how in Haiti and in Japan the federal effort was quicker and that the US had ships off the coast of Virginia that were just waiting to be sent.
I don’t know all the particulars, but at the beginning and end of the day we’ll do everything we can to help the people just as we did for Texas and Florida to get back on their feet. It’s going to cost a lot of money and a lot of time.
In hindsight, you can do something quicker. But I don’t know.
But nothing in the record at all makes you think Trump’s team or Trump himself could have been quicker or more alert to this?
I don’t know how you could be more alert. Hurricanes happen. They’re going to happen in the Caribbean.
Did you approve of him arguing back and forth with the mayor of San Juan?
There’s probably a lot of frustration there. Her constituents are unhappy. I would be, too. And the mayors down there — she does feel the pressure down there. So I could see that.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS): “[Trump] jumped on it as quickly as he could”
I’m curious what you think of the Trump administration response to the crisis in Puerto Rico.
I think they are doing a good job in difficult circumstances.
What do you think about the mayor of San Juan’s criticisms of Trump?
I don’t know about that. I was aware that there was criticism, but let me say we’ve experienced hurricanes back in Mississippi — and it’s very, very difficult.
It seems to me the president did the best as he could to get ahead of the issue, and he jumped on it as quickly as he could.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT): “The fact is there's no plan or strategy”
Do you think the federal reaction was timely and efficient?
We had a briefing this morning with high-level FEMA officials, and what's apparent is the disconnect between their positive public portrait and what actually is the situation on the ground, which is people very much in need of basic needs like food, medicine, water.
Ninety-five percent of the island is without power. Eighty-nine percent is lacking in cell towers. Most of the country is without portable water. And the United States military has only committed a small percentage of the helicopters and troops that went to Haiti.
So you pressed the FEMA officials on why? What did they say?
They said there's progress, that more helicopters and military officers are on their way and more troops are being sent.
But the fact is there's no plan or strategy — they had no precise estimate of how much a relief package should be, and the reason is in my view that there is no plan of strategy for how to deliver short-term or long-term, because recovery on the island has to be more than just a short-term fix — putting power back for opening a food market. It has to be about restoring the island's economy and its power plants and transmission lines.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI): “He's setting the worst example possible at the worst possible time”
What do you think of Trump's response to the Puerto Rico emergency?
They were too late in mobilizing the military. They did not coordinate a full government response. They did not treat this with the urgency that it deserves. And that is objectively true if you compare the response of the US government in Japan after the Tomodachi earthquake; to the Haiti disaster; and even with Houston. They just didn't mobilize quickly or robustly.
There's two categories — two ways in which he failed. One was the failure to coordinate a multi-agency, fulsome federal response. The other is you just don't do what he's doing — you don't make it about you. He shouldn't make it about him and another politician; this is about 3.5 million Americans suffering, and he's setting the worst example possible at the worst possible time.
This is not complicated from a governing or leadership standpoint. This should be a layup — mobilize everything he possibly can and express solidarity and sympathy. There: I just told him what he should have done.
It's a quite unusual leader from either party who fails to recognize you ought to do everything you can for people and, at a minimum, not get into petty squabbles.