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Trump's Response to Puerto Rico Is Shameful

FEMA is delivering aid, and Trump has promised to visit. But as you might expect, the president is making a horrible situation worse with bizarre, defensive statements.

Eve Peyser

Eve Peyser

After the devastation Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico was initially met with relative quiet from the president last week, I was genuinely concerned Donald Trump did not know or care that the island is a real part of the United States. Millions of American citizens there are still without power, food and water are in desperately short supply, and other basic services like cell phone signal remain elusive. Yet from Trump, as many of his critics were quick to point out, America heard precious little beyond an initial, vague promise to deliver aid and, eventually, visit in person.

Since Monday night, Trump has switched up his approach, dripping out a steady diet of tweets about the deeply troubled island territory—along with side-gems like, "The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger." While his tweets suggest the man is, in fact, aware he has responsibility for the wellbeing of millions of endangered US citizens, his ongoing fixation with reprimanding the NFL for allowing players to exercise their freedom of speech is deeply disturbing.

When the president has explicitly talked about Puerto Rico, he hasn't exactly been reassuring, either. At one point Monday, Trump actually seemed to blame the island for the damage caused by a hurricane, citing its long-term debt and infrastructure problems.

Trump is apparently referring to the Puerto Rican multi-billion dollar debt crisis, a problem that's been largely inflicted on the territory by outside profiteers. As for its infrastructure, the neglect is real—but suggesting, as Trump did, that this was somehow on residents and not the country at large does not align with the reality of the situation. It comes as no surprise that a man who was a vocal opponent of "Obama's wind turbines" because they "kill 13-39 million birds and bats every year" and once referred broadly to undocumented immigrants as "criminals" and "rapists" doesn't have a clear handle on the Puerto Rican debt crisis. But here we are.

Nevertheless, it's troubling for Trump to tweet about disaster relief efforts within the context of the "billions of dollars" Puerto Rico owes "to Wall Street" and to suggest that Texas and Florida (which probably aren't "doing great") are somehow different. Leaving aside the fact that Trump's own business career has largely been defined by shady deals and incredible debts, it's not that hard to at least make the gesture of suggesting Puerto Rico's problems are America's problems. Many of Trump's Republican colleagues certainly did so.

Finally, on Tuesday—as part of what was reportedly a coordinated PR push—Trump addressed the elephant in the room. He informed reporters that the United States territory "is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It's a big ocean, it's a very big ocean." He also promised to visit Puerto Rico in a week, on October 3, and acknowledged that it has been "literally destroyed."

"I know many Puerto Ricans, and they're great people and we have to help them. It really was devastated," Trump said in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. "The infrastructure was in bad shape as you know in Puerto Rico before the storm, and now in many cases, it has no infrastructure, so it's—you're really starting from almost scratch."

Later, in the White House Rose Garden, the president made sure to inform the public that Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, "thanked me specifically for FEMA." And it's true that, at least early on, the federal government's response to Maria drew praise—FEMA seemed to take aggressive steps to get a handle on the situation, and aid streamed into Puerto Rico this weekend. But Congress still has to pass a special aid package to free up new money for a disaster many say has already set Puerto Rico back decades.

When the president of the United States has to explicitly deny he was distracted from a crisis by a compulsive need to wage war on black athletes, as Trump did Tuesday, or say things like "this is a thing called the Atlantic Ocean, this is tough stuff" to explain why supplies aren't getting to those in need fast enough, it suggests he really isn't taking this thing very seriously. And that is shameful.

Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.

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