Take this morning, for example, when the president delivered a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers. Reading from his teleprompter, Trump began by sending “our thoughts and prayers to the people of Puerto Rico, who have been struck by storms of historic and catastrophic severity.” But then he strayed from his script:
“The response and recovery effort probably has never been seen for something like this. This is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.”
I suppose his point was that Puerto Rico’s distance and location have hampered the speed of the federal response, though we’ve responded effectively to disasters in the Philippines and Hispaniola – both of which are islands “surrounded by water” – with greater speed and efficiency.
Complicating matters is the series of related comments the president has made about the disaster. After a prolonged silence on Puerto Rico – he seemed far more interested in protesting athletes last weekend – Trump eventually addressed the island’s crisis on Monday night, noting that Puerto Rico is “billions of dollars in debt to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
It wasn’t exactly the angle that seemed relevant this week.
A day later, the president said at a press conference that the disaster in Puerto Rico “just happened,” when in fact, the storm hit the island several days earlier. Trump went on to say, “This is a thing called the Atlantic Ocean. This is tough stuff.”
Earlier in the day, the president added, “This is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It’s a big ocean, it’s a very big ocean.”
Not to put too fine a point on this, but Puerto Rico is in the Caribbean. The U.S. territory is not around the corner, but from Miami, it’s about 1,000 miles – roughly the distance from the White House to the president’s Floridian golf resort. Puerto Rico is obviously an island, but it’s not “in the middle” of a “very big ocean.”
Obviously, what matters right now is the humanitarian crisis facing these millions of Americans, not Trump’s rhetorical difficulties. That said, it’s nevertheless true that the president’s references to “big water” sound more like an excuse than an attempt to put things right.