Trump Still Thinks He Did A ‘Fantastic Job’ In Puerto Rico
Despite the evidence, the President thinks he did a great job handling a disaster in which nearly 3,000 American citizens died.
Notwithstanding the report that nearly three thousand American citizens died as a result of Hurricane Maria and the flawed response to the aftermath of that disaster, President Trump remains convinced that his Administration did a “fantastic job”:
President Trump on Wednesday defended his administration’s response to a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico last year, despite a study released this week that said there was a spike in deaths on the island in the six months that followed.
“I think we did a fantastic job,” Trump said, responding to a question from a reporter at the White House. He called the emergency on the island “by far the most difficult” of the areas of the United States and its territories ravaged by a series of hurricanes.
“It’s hard to get things on the island,” Trump said, comparing the situation to response efforts in Texas and Florida, which also suffered significant damage.
The president’s remarks came a day after a sweeping new report from George Washington University found that there were an estimated 2,975 excess deaths on the island after Maria made landfall in September 2017. The Puerto Rico government embraced the findings as the official death toll, ranking Maria among the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. For much of the past year, the government had formally acknowledged just 64 deaths from the hurricane, which ravaged much of the territory and destroyed critical infrastructure. The spike in mortality came as the territory dealt with widespread and lengthy power outages, a lack of access to adequate health care, water insecurity and diseases related to the crisis.
Trump and his administration had been heavily criticized for not responding to the crisis in Puerto Rico as thoroughly as they did to the disasters caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the continental United States. As he had in the wake of the storms last year, Trump emphasized the magnitude of the challenge Wednesday, calling the back-to-back hurricanes “the likes of which we have never seen before,” and sought to shift blame onto Puerto Rico, citing the U.S. territory’s debt and infrastructure problems as contributing to the crisis.
“When the hurricane came, people said, ‘What are we going to do about the electrical?’ That wasn’t really the hurricane. It was before the hurricane,” Trump said. “We’ve put a lot of money and a lot of effort into Puerto Rico.” He said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who unlike other politicians in the territory has been supportive of Trump, was “happy with the job we’ve done.”
At a news conference Tuesday, Rosselló accepted the GWU report, which found that his administration was largely unprepared for the magnitude of the storm, and acknowledged he had “made mistakes.”
It is “time to correct what we didn’t do well,” he said.
Trump praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency as “very brave” in its response to the storms last year. Of Puerto Rico, he said: “I only hope they don’t get hit again. . . . Puerto Rico had a lot of difficulties before they got hit. We’re straightening out those difficulties even now.”
The President’s tone deaf, and largely wrong, response to the latest news about the impact of Maria on Puerto Rico is hardly a new development, of course. Even as the island was just beginning to recover from the disaster, Trump was spending more time attacking officials at the local and island-wide level than he was working to actually do anything that would help these American citizens dealing with what was obviously the worst natural disaster to hit an American territory since at least Hurricane Katrina. Within a month after the storm had hit, the President was already talking about withdrawing Federal relief sources even though it was clear that it would be months, if not years before parts of the island would be anywhere close to being back to where it was before the storm hit. As a result, it’s clear that the warnings of these officials, such as the Mayor of San Juan who traded barbs with the President over the course of several weeks last September and October, went unheeded and that little to nothing was being done to follow up on those local warnings or on the reporting being done by reporters on the ground that clearly indicated that there were serious gaps in the disaster relief program that was supposedly being overseen by Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. Rather than heed those warnings, though, the President and his staff clearly ignored them and one cannot help but believe that, at least in part, this contributed to the deaths that resulted from the storm and its aftermath.
Furthermore, while the President is correct that Puerto Rico was in dire financial straits well before Maria came long, his comments yesterday and in the past misstate the truth about what happened and how it contributed to the crisis that resulted after the storm struck. For example, it is true that Puerto Rico’s largest electric utility was in deep financial trouble prior to the storm, but it is not true that there was any significant portion of the island that was not receiving power prior to the storm. Indeed, part of the responsibility of FEMA and other Federal agencies after a storm like this is to help get things like electric power and water back online. They utterly failed to do this and, as a result, millions of people went without power for months, and there reportedly still rural parts of the island for whom power has not been fully restored.
Additionally, Trump’s comments about the financial problems that the island was dealing with prior to Maria, which did hinder the ability to promptly respond to the storm to some degree, ignore some of the main reasons why that was the case. Among the primary reasons are the financial obligations that Federal laws impose on the Commonwealth without providing for any real means for reimbursement from Congress. Additionally, the fact that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and have been for a century now, means that citizens of the island are free to travel and move to the United States at any time, which means that the Commonwealth often loses many of its ‘best and brightest’ to the allure of a better life in the mainland United States. On top of all of that, changes that were made to Federal bankruptcy laws more than a decade ago meant that government-run entities and municipalities were not allowed to seek the same kind of bankruptcy protection that similar entities on the mainland are allowed to take advantage of as they always have been able to do. That law was changed somewhat last year and, as a result, there are several municipal bankruptcies pending in the Federal Courts that aimed to allow the island to reorganize its finances while seeking to reach a deal with creditors that will allow it continue to function. For the most part, though, those changes came too late to have a measurable impact prior to the time that Maria struck.
In any event, even if Puerto Rico had been in much better financial condition, that would have been largely irrelevant once Hurricane Maria bored down on the island. When the storm hit, Maria was a strong Category 4 storm and it hit the island with the worst of its wind and rain. By the time the storm cleared, the vast majority of the island was without power, most residents didn’t have potable water, and areas outside the major cities were largely inaccessible due to damage to the road system. Even today, the situation remains desperate, and there are parts of the island still without power or drinkable water and most authorities projecting it could be up to six months before power and water are restored to some parts of the island. Experts have estimated it will take years, and billions of dollars, for the island to get anywhere close to where it was before the storm hit. And this President clearly does not care.
To be sure, what happened in the wake of Maria is not entirely the fault of the Federal Government. There were failures at the island-wide and local level as well, but that doesn’t obviate the fact that the primary responsibility in a situation such as this is a Federal one and that, just as was the case in the wake of Katrina, there was a combination of failure, incompetence, and outright neglect on the part of Washington that should be completely unacceptable. At the very least, it is clear that the President’s belief that he did a “fantastic job” is a fantasy.
What’s notable, although probably not surprising, about the President’s reaction to the situation in Puerto Rico is how different it is to the reaction to the damage done just a few weeks before by Hurricane Harvey in southern Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida. In those case, Trump at least appeared to be on top of the situation and even to be empathetic to what was happening on the ground. In the case of Puerto Rico, Trump has been rather dismissive and has spent more time attacking the Mayor of San Juan and other government officials and blaming them for the situation and the difficulties that the Federal Government has had in responding to the disaster. A cynical person, of course, would conclude that the difference in treatment can be found in the fact that there are no Electoral Votes to seek in Puerto Rico and the island’s residents are not likely to be among his supporters. Whatever the reason, though, the attitude he’s displaying is hardly Presidential, but then that’s typical for him, isn’t it?