Perhaps the most remarkable thing about living through the Donald Trump presidency is that against all odds, the man has retained his ability to shock. Last month, he was complaining about how badly his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was being treated in court (Manafort has since been convicted on eight counts of fraud). A week ago, he was openly calling for the Justice Department to slow-walk corruption investigations into Republican congressmen to help his party hold onto power in the midterms. And just when you thought all that might represent a nadir in terms of ugly and depraved presidential rhetoric, on Thursday Trump said the Puerto Rican hurricane death toll was a Democratic plot, or something:
As usual, ascribing precise meaning onto Trump's tweets is like trying to climb a greased-up pole. But it has been widely assumed the president was accusing a report from George Washington University—commissioned by the Puerto Rican government—of being politically biased. This followed his calling the federal response to Hurricane Maria "an incredible unsung success" even though that report estimated thousands of Americans died because they lacked access to healthcare, clean water, or electricity. The ridiculous and almost nonsensical charge demonstrates more clearly than ever that Trump cares more about his own image than the lives of his citizens.
It's no longer really a matter of debate that Hurricane Maria was handled extremely poorly. The federal Government Accountability Office released a report this month finding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was understaffed and unprepared for the disaster. Stories about inadequate distribution of food and water on the island have circulated for months; days before Trump's pissy complaints about the death toll, photos of thousands of bottles of water lying unused on a Puerto Rican runway spread on social media, fomenting fresh rage.
Previously, Trump blamed Puerto Rico's poor infrastructure for these problems, but his tweets on Thursday went further than that. As usually happens when the president says something really stupid, his fellow Republicans quickly moved to not exactly condemn him, but make it clear they didn't agree. Still, House Speaker Paul Ryan's response made it clear that even if the Republican line is more refined than Trump's bombast, it's still essentially an attempt to dodge responsibility:
For a comparison, it's helpful to look back at the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, which included a report from a Republican-dominated Congress that was extremely critical of the George W. Bush administration. This time around, however, Republicans have largely succeeded in blocking Democratic efforts to start such an investigation of the Maria response, and Congress has ignored calls to provide the type of assistance Puerto Rico advocates say the island needs.
Trump is the only one saying the government did a "fantastic job" here. But the Republican Party as a whole appears remarkably uninterested in how the government could have done a better job, or how it might improve its emergency response in the future. This is hardly an academic question with Hurricane Florence currently bearing down on the Southeast coast, and more major storms on the horizon thanks at least in part to climate change.
Hopefully, no one is still under the illusion that Trump will moderate his rhetoric—he's an angry, paranoid old man stuck in a job he's unprepared for and has little interest in. But seriously examining what could have been done better during a crisis should be a routine action for any large organization, public or private. Even if the response to Maria had been adequate, a competent federal government would be working on ways to make that response even better and to save more lives next time a disaster strikes a vulnerable community.
Such thinking, of course, would require an executive willing to admit mistakes and learn from them. Instead, America has a president who sticks his fingers in his ears at every piece of bad news, denounces his supposed enemies when reality isn't to his liking, and avoids responsibility at every turn. Trump's tweets on Maria are lies, but that much shouldn't surprise anyone. They're also as pure an example of cowardice as you're likely to see.
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