If history is a guide, it won’t be long after Hurricane Florence’s winds ease and floods ebb that President Donald Trump will award himself high marks for his handling of the latest natural disaster.
Given his previous grade inflation, reflected in a new controversy he unleashed over the human toll of a hurricane in Puerto Rico last year, his assessments may not carry the unquestioned authority that those of a commander in chief should.
This year’s first major hurricane strike has again revealed how Trump sometimes struggles to find the right rhetorical notes at a time of crisis and how he often seems most concerned about the impact of such events on his own image.
It’s also a fair question why he is not singularly focused on masterminding the federal government’s response to this devastating storm, rather than tweeting, apparently enraged by cable news coverage, about last year’s tragedy.
As Florence has approached, Trump has switched between two extremes, expressing wonderment at the scale of the storm and boasting that the United States has never been better prepared for such an epic battering.
Trump’s supporters and the White House often complain that the media is always looking for any opportunity to turn even unrelated events into a forum for criticizing the President.
But he brought such condemnation on himself Thursday, with a callous tweet dismissing academic research showing the true extent of Hurricane Maria’s wrath.
“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…” Trump tweeted.
“…..This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
The President’s reasoning was illustrative of many trends and character traits evident throughout his time in office so far.
To begin with, it was an effort to generate his preferred reality and showed contempt for facts established through rigorous academic study and backed up by extensive journalistic accounts by CNN and other outlets over the last year.
It was also a reminder of how little Trump appreciates the civic and ceremonial roles of the presidency itself. After all, he is the President of the people in Puerto Rico who died, as well as everyone else in the United States.
Most presidents would have felt compelled to offer sympathy and compassion to the victims of the storm and their relatives, at the very least — but Trump seemed more concerned about absolving himself and the federal government he runs of any blame.
In effect he was telling those relatives — your loved ones didn’t die because of the storm — after awarding his government top marks for its handling of the disaster and saying this week that it was an “unsung” success.
It was not as if the President alone was being blamed. When Republicans say the US territory’s infrastructure was in poor shape and ill prepared for Maria, they are right. CNN reporting has shown there is blame to go around for federal and local authorities. And no politician can simply stop a storm.
But there is no sign that the President thinks the buck stops with him or is dedicating himself to learning the lessons from last year to stop it happening again, or has factored them into his approach to Florence.
In fact, the administration reacted to anger over Trump’s tweet by doubling down with obfuscation.
Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, recalled that the President had said last year that every death in Puerto Rico was a “horror.” But Gidley chose not to repeat the next sentence, when the President suggested that Maria was not a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in which 1,833 people died.
“President Trump was responding to the liberal media and the San Juan Mayor who sadly, have tried to exploit the devastation by pushing out a constant stream of misinformation and false accusations,” Gidley said in a statement.
The death toll in Puerto Rico was formally raised to 2,975 from 64 following a study conducted by researchers at The George Washington University. CNN’s own reporting reflects similar numbers. The university study accounted for Puerto Ricans who died in the days after the storm, as stifling heat suffocated the island.
Much of the US territory was without power for weeks and months. Many elderly and infirm patients were left without medicine and vital treatment because of a severely depleted public health system
There is no scenario in which, as Trump claims, the figures were simply cooked up by Democrats to make him look bad.
“There is no reason to doubt the validity of these studies. This is a scientifically robust effort,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“The victims, nor the people of Puerto Rico, deserve to have their pain questioned.”
As often happens with Trump’s most outrageous tweets, senior Republicans on Capitol Hill were forced to react, or tried to dodge reporters to avoid being torn between the President and his loyal political base, which has reshaped the politics of the GOP.
Given current political realities, it’s unlikely that Trump will pay a significant price for his tweet. It was, after all, probably directed mostly at his base, which he has already instructed to believe only his interpretation of events.
But it’s possible it will factor into the decisions of voters in some key districts that could help decide the midterm elections in November, at a time when his sub-40% approval rating is already dragging some candidates down.
After all, one of the roles of the President is to comfort the nation in times of grief and to bring Americans together when some of their number are suffering.
After a shaky start when Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas last year, the President seemed to improve his public emoting. But his treatment of Puerto Rico has overshadowed that performance. It often seems he just doesn’t care that much about other people.
In Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” former chief of staff Reince Priebus is quoted as reflecting on the President’s treatment of his subordinates in a way that is also relevant to his wider ceremonial duties at a time of national peril.
“The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way,” Priebus is quoted as saying.
Trump’s ability and willingness to put the suffering of others above his self-absorption could be tested again in the days ahead.