As Matt Yglesias explained yesterday, the crisis in Puerto Rico is a different kind of challenge for this president.
For the first nine months of his administration, observers have had occasion to wonder – and wonder, and wonder, and wonder – how exactly Donald Trump would manage to handle a real crisis imposed by external events rather than his own impulsiveness. The answer is now apparent in the blackened streets of San Juan and the villages of interior Puerto Rico that more than a week after Hurricane Maria struck remain without access to food or clean water.
Phase One of Trump’s response to Puerto Rico’s crisis was passive indifference. Last week, for example, as Americans on the island struggled without access to power or water, the president’s focus was on racially inflammatory criticism of professional athletes. When Trump finally acknowledged the catastrophic conditions in Puerto Rico, the president’s interest seemed largely limited to money the island owes to Wall Street.
Phase Two was the president’s overly defensive posture. The more the administration’s response to the crisis faced criticism, the more Trump proudly bragged about how amazing he and his team had performed. At different times last week, he said, “We have had tremendous reviews”; “Everybody has said it’s amazing the job that we’ve done in Puerto Rico”; “It’s been incredible the results that we’ve had”; “People can’t believe how successful that has been”; and “We have done an incredible job.”
In Trump’s mind, much of Puerto Rico’s crisis appears to be about him, and he’s eager to tell you how awesome he thinks he is.
But Phase Three began in earnest over the weekend, when the president shifted from an overly defensive posture to an overtly offensive one.
After saying the administration wouldn’t rest until Puerto Ricans are safe, Trump spent the weekend at one of his golf resorts, where the president was apparently eager to whine about what he saw on television. He lashed out at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz for daring to criticize his administration’s response; Trump blasted Puerto Ricans as wanting “everything to be done for them”; and he urged the Americans on the island who don’t have electricity not to believe the information they’re receiving by way of “fake news” – a phrase he used nine times in 24 hours.
At one point, the president said, “We must all be united in offering assistance to everyone suffering in Puerto Rico.” The tweet was sandwiched in between criticisms of San Juan mayor who apparently hurt Trump’s feelings.
It culminated in the Republican declaring, “We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates, people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military. All buildings now inspected for safety.” (In reality, all buildings on the island have not been inspected for safety.)
In recent months, it’s been periodically tempting to think, “Well, that’s it. He’s reached the bottom of the barrel. Trump simply can’t sink any lower.” And yet, we just watched the president publicly blast hurricane victims, each of whom are facing life-threatening conditions, from the comfort of one of his golf resorts – suggesting Trump has managed to drill a hole in the bottom of the barrel, allowing him to sink lower.
Donald Trump has taken countless steps to embarrass himself in recent years, but grotesque displays like these embarrass us all. Last week, a Quinnipiac poll found that 56% of Americans believe Trump is not “fit to serve” as president. Over the weekend, he seemed eager to prove this narrow majority right.
Postscript: There were times over the weekend when Trump suggested criticisms of his administration’s response should necessarily be seen as criticisms of the U.S. military and other first responders. It’s a lazy trick, obviously, but it’s also a standard Trump routinely ignored when he tried to undermine Barack Obama’s presidency