Now, one might ask why Trump should have to answer for this. One reason is that, despite his penchant for passing the buck, the president is the head of the executive branch and is responsible for its operations. A second is that he has repeatedly asked for the public to congratulate him for his handling of Maria, even though the facts don’t bear it out. Demand credit and you’re liable to end up taking blame.
In a disaster, presidents serve primarily as figureheads, comforting victims and sending a symbolic message about where governmental priorities lie—both to citizens and to the governmental agencies. In the aftermath of Maria’s strike on Puerto Rico, Trump insisted that all was well on the island, pressuring local officials—dependent on his beneficence—to grit their teeth and agree. As it slowly became clear that all was not well, the president chose to respond by attacking the press and Mayor Cruz for saying so, rather than focusing on the underlying problems.
When Trump finally decided to go to Puerto Rico himself—two weeks after landfall—the visit was a political disaster. The president held a briefing at an Air National Guard base, which he turned into a fact-challenged round of self- and other-congratulation about how well the recovery was going. Trump also suggested that Maria was not a “real catastrophe.”
“Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here and what is your death count? Sixteen people, versus in the thousands,” he said. “You can be very proud. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.”
After the briefing, Trump visited a church where he was photographed tossing rolls of paper towels, as if they were basketballs, into a crowd of desperate survivors.
One year later, with the real death toll revealed to be near 3,000, Trump’s “real catastrophe” remarks seem not only tone deaf but appallingly misguided. Nor, contrary to the implication of his tweet Wednesday, is it good enough for the federal government’s response to work adequately in two out of three disasters affecting American citizens. The contrast between the relatively successful aid to Texas and Florida and the relatively poor response in Puerto Rico reflects poorly on the federal government. This is especially true in light of Trump’s tendency to disparage Hispanics and Puerto Rico’s status as an American territory with limited political rights.
“No relationship between a colony and the federal government can ever be called ‘successful’ because Puerto Ricans lack certain inalienable rights enjoyed by our fellow Americans in the states,” Governor Richard Rosselló said in a statement Tuesday responding to Trump’s comments. “The historical relationship between Puerto Rico and Washington is unfair and unAmerican. It is certainly not a successful relationship.”