US President Donald Trump tries to listen to a question as walks on the South Lawn upon his return to the White House in Washington from Cleveland, Ohio, on...
YURI GRIPAS

Surveying hurricane damage, Trump struggles with his latest empathy test

Updated

Donald Trump traveled to North Carolina yesterday, visiting an area hard hit by Hurricane Florence and the flooding that followed the storm. At one point, he spoke to a homeowner with a yacht in his backyard.

As the Washington Post  reported, the president appeared to take a keen interest in the boat.

“Is this your boat? Or … did it become your boat?” Trump asked the man who lived in the house where the boat was now inadvertently and incongruously docked.

No, it was not his boat, the homeowner replied, according to the pool report, which didn’t identify residents by name.

Trump returned his gaze to the vessel, which was white with brown accents and balanced at a precarious angle.

“At least you got a nice boat out of the deal,” he said, with a smile.

Later, a reporter asked the president to reflect on what he’d seen in the affected area. “I think it’s incredible, I think it’s incredible,” Trump said. “To see what we’re seeing – this boat, I don’t know what happened, but this boat just came here. And do you know whose boat that is? They don’t know whose boat that it.”

He reportedly added, “What’s the law? Maybe it becomes theirs.”

It’s entirely possible the president takes the “finders keepers” maxim a bit too literally.

Whether Trump was kidding or not is unclear, but either way, this was an opportunity for the president to console a community that’s suffered a great ordeal. To do so effectively would’ve required a degree of empathy.

And that’s not exactly a key element of Donald Trump’s skill-set.

Indeed, this comes up more often than it should. A few months ago, the president traveled to Texas to extend his support to families who’d lost loved ones in a school shooting. Trump spoke to one grieving mother about his desire to dispatch armed security to schools, and when she explained her opposition to the idea, it didn’t go well. She told the Associated Press that having a conversation with the president “was like talking to a toddler.”

As we discussed at the time, it was a familiar reaction. After the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., for example, Trump called Samantha Fuentes, a student who’d been shot and was left with a piece of shrapnel lodged behind her right eye. “Talking to the president, I’ve never been so unimpressed by a person in my life,” she said after the conversation. “He didn’t make me feel better in the slightest.”

Around the same time, Trump hosted an event at the White House on school shootings, where he clutched talking points that had apparently been written for him. One of them read, “I hear you” – suggesting he needed to be reminded of this.

Before that, Trump reached out to Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, after he was killed in Niger. When their conversation didn’t go well, the president ended up feuding with Ms. Johnson via Twitter.

Last fall, shortly after the massacre in Las Vegas, the Associated Press reported that White House aides felt anxiety over what Trump might say (or tweet) about the mass murders. They were nervous, of course, because of the president’s “troubled track record in such delicate moments.”

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, he marveled at the size of the “turnout” of people who wanted to see him in Corpus Christi. After initially ignoring Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, the president focused on the island’s debts to Wall Street, feuded with a local mayor, and threw paper towels to locals as if he were shooting free throws.

Yesterday, his instinct was to congratulate someone on the free boat that landed in his yard.

I’m sure there are examples of Trump comforting people in need during difficult times, but it’s nevertheless difficult to look past the pattern in which the president’s empathy gap has been on display. He routinely struggles in a wide variety of ways, but it appears that asking Trump to play the role of Consoler in Chief is simply unrealistic.

As a candidate, the future president, referring to himself in third person, said empathy would be “one of the strongest things about Trump.”

There’s quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.