President Donald Trump appeared at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Wednesday for an annual hurricane briefing, but the event had little to do with preparation for hurricanes. Trump’s remarks were especially striking for what went unmentioned: Puerto Rico’s brutal recovery from Hurricane Maria.
US presidents hold a yearly briefing with FEMA leaders to discuss how the government is preparing for the hurricane season, which this year started June 1, and the president usually gives public remarks beforehand to remind Americans to prepare too. That’s not what happened this year.
Trump spent most of his time boasting about his administration’s accomplishments and praising his Cabinet officials, who were also present.
When he did get around to talking about hurricanes, he mentioned Puerto Rico only once, lumping it in with a few other states hit by natural disasters in 2017.
There’s a good reason for the neglect. The aftermath of the Category 4 hurricane that hit the island was one of the darkest period’s of Trump’s presidency so far (which is saying something). Maria was the worst natural disaster ever to hit the island, knocking out cellphone service and electricity for months. The local and federal response was a mess, with botched FEMA contracts, a drinking water crisis, an army of federal responders stretched too thin, and long delays in approving reconstruction aid for the island.
President Trump’s response was no less atrocious. When he visited Puerto Rico two weeks after the storm, he suggested that Maria wasn’t “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina. And instead of offering condolences, he reminded Puerto Rico how much money it was costing the federal government to respond to the crisis. He even congratulated the governor for the low death count, which was 16 at the time. That number was way off.
New research from epidemiologists at Harvard suggests Hurricane Maria was the deadliest natural disaster to hit US soil in 100 years. The research, published May 29 in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, pegged the hurricane death toll above 4,600 — far beyond the official death count of 64. That means Maria was likely twice as deadly as Hurricane Katrina.
The hurricane briefing would have been the perfect opportunity for the president to address Puerto Rico’s struggles and the new death toll estimates, but Trump seemed determined to ignore it at all costs.
Melania is back
The event did mark the first press appearance of first lady Melania Trump since she was hospitalized three weeks ago for a procedure to treat a “benign kidney condition.” (She attended a gala Monday evening for Gold Star families, but it was not open to the press.) She sat silently by her husband Wednesday at the FEMA briefing — an event not usually attended by the first lady.
Melania Trump’s disappearance from public view had fueled rampant speculation about her health and whereabouts — that she might be getting plastic surgery or even cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller.
As Vox’s Emily Stewart notes, there was no indication that Trump had health problems, and there were no leaks that any type of procedure was upcoming. More details on her condition weren’t released, and the five days she spent at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center raised some eyebrows, as the typical hospital stay for such a procedure is usually shorter.
The first lady remained out of sight after she was discharged from the hospital. She skipped a Memorial Day wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery, and she didn’t accompany the president to Camp David last weekend.
The rumors about her whereabouts continued, even after Trump assured the public on social media that everything was just fine.
I see the media is working overtime speculating where I am & what I'm doing. Rest assured, I'm here at the @WhiteHouse w my family, feeling great, & working hard on behalf of children & the American people!— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) May 30, 2018
Trump’s unexpected appearance at the FEMA briefing may have an attempt to put an end to the stories.
“She went through a rough patch, but she’s doing great and we’re very proud of her. She’s done a fantastic job as a first lady. The people of our country love you,” the president said, awkwardly reaching out to grab her hand several times.
Trump used his hurricane briefing to not talk about hurricanes
President Trump didn’t want to talk about hurricanes at FEMA. He wanted to talk about all the great things his administration has done.
He spent more than half of his 17-minute remarks thanking each Cabinet member individually for their accomplishments.
That included effusive praise of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who Trump said is “working hard on those taxes and keeping the taxes down. ... We passed the greatest tax cut in the history of our country, and lots of other things.”
And he commended Kirstjen Nielsen, head of the Department of Homeland Security, for doing great things on the border. “The border is coming along. And the wall is going up. We have $1.6 billion being spent on phase one of the wall, and we’ll get additional funding. And every week that goes by, people realize it more and more that we have to have the wall.”
He joked about how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is “the largest landlord in the world” and complimented Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao for being “so effective and so incredible.”
When he did bring up hurricanes, it was to tell the public that the federal government did everything right in its hurricane response last year — and that we should expect the same type of response this year. “We are marshaling every available resource to ensure maximum preparation for rapid response. That’s what we had last year. Disaster response and recovery is best achieved when it’s federally supported, state-managed, and locally executed,” he said.
Trump did not mention that his administration sent few emergency responders to Puerto Rico before the storm, or the delay in sending the Navy medical ship USS Comfort, or how FEMA hired completely inexperienced contractors to handle food and water supplies for hurricane victims.
Trump did mention Puerto Rico, once.
“Families in Texas and Louisiana, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi — they were all affected. Hard to believe. And on tribal lands, where the hit was catastrophic, and the storms were really historic in their severity,” he said.
Even in his private meeting with FEMA leaders that was closed to the press, Trump avoided talking about hurricanes, according to the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey:
President Trump had a lot else on his mind, turning the closed-door discussion into soliloquies on his prowess in negotiating airplane deals, his popularity, the effectiveness of his political endorsements, the Republican Party’s fortunes, the vagaries of Defense Department purchasing guidelines, his dislike of magnetized launch equipment on aircraft carriers, his unending love of coal and his breezy optimism about his planned Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
This was the time Trump was supposed to press FEMA about what the agency can do to better prepare for another deadly disaster like Hurricane Maria.
But he didn’t. And it’s a crisis he’s gotten very good at ignoring.