At a White House reception last night, Donald Trump reflected on the severity of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, respectively, and referring to the latter, the president said, “I never even knew a Category 5 existed.”
And as strange as this was – a 71-year-old man who watches a lot of television had never heard of a Category 5 hurricane? – it wasn’t the most surprising thing Trump said yesterday in reference to the deadly storms. Consider this exchange aboard Air Force One yesterday between the president and reporters:
Q: Mr. President, the severity of these storms – the one in Florida, the one in Texas – has that made you rethink your views of climate change?
TRUMP: Well, we’ve had bigger storms than this. And if you go back into the 1930s and the 1940s, and you take a look, we’ve had storms over the years that have been bigger than this. If you go back into the Teens, you’ll see storms that were as big or bigger. So we did have two horrific storms, epic storms. But if you go back into the ’30s and ’40s, and you go back into the Teens, you’ll see storms that were very similar and even bigger, okay?
Let’s take a step back for a moment. As Hurricane Harvey approached Texas’ gulf coast, Trump couldn’t stop marveling at its size and intensity. At a news conference, he said, “I’ve heard the words, ‘epic.’ I’ve heard ‘historic.’ That’s what it is.” It followed a tweet in which Trump added, “Many people are now saying that this is the worst storm/hurricane they have ever seen.”
For a while, I assumed this was the president’s way of conveying a sense of urgency to the public, but the more Trump gushed, the more it seemed he was referring to the scope of the challenge on his shoulders. As a Washington Post piece put it a few weeks ago, “By focusing on the historic epicness of the hurricane, Trump has repeatedly turned attention to his role in confronting the disaster.”
Soon after, as Irma approached land, he tweeted, “Hurricane looks like largest ever recorded in the Atlantic!” It was followed by, “Hurricane Irma is of epic proportion, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen.”
But the moment climate change came up, Trump turned on a dime. “We’ve had storms over the years that have been bigger than this” is the new line.
As The New Republic’s Emily Atkin put it, “This is a near-perfect example of how climate deniers will bury their heads in the sand to keep pretending climate change doesn’t exist. Harvey inundated Houston with more than 50 inches of rain – there has never been a bigger rain event in America. Irma, at its peak, reached sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, making it the strongest storm recorded in the Atlantic Ocean outside of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Trump knew all these things a week ago – but now, suddenly, he doesn’t.”
When confronted with an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, Trump is eager to hype hurricanes. When confronted with a question about the climate crisis, he’s eager to do the opposite.