In recent years, American presidents have routinely been evaluated on their administrations’ responses to hurricanes. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, George W. Bush created a low standard, and there’s a broad expectation that his successors need to take care to avoid following his example.But before a storm reaches soil, there’s not a whole lot for a president to do. Donald Trump nevertheless skipped a scheduled event in Poland commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion, citing the threat posed by Hurricane Dorian, and sending Vice President Mike Pence in his stead. The VP told his hosts in Warsaw over the weekend, “The president is where he needs to be.”
Where Trump evidently needed to be was on a golf course, where he reportedly received updates on the storm.
But that’s not all the president did. Over the weekend, Trump’s preparation for Dorian featured a few key curiosities. First, the president published a tweet including Alabama among the states “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” Twenty minutes later, the National Weather Service, while not referencing Trump specifically, published a tweet of its own, telling the public, “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”
When news outlets noted the president’s error, Trump took great offense, insisting he was right, reality notwithstanding.
Second, as the deadly storm drew closer and began to wreak havoc on the Bahamas, the president had a Festivus-like airing of grievances, complaining about Debra Messing, AFL–CIO President Richard Trumka, four progressive congresswomen of color, and news organizations.
And then, of course, there was his unexplained unfamiliarity with Category 5 hurricanes.
President Donald Trump said Sunday that he’s “not sure that (he’s) ever even heard of a Category 5” hurricane, despite four such storms – including Hurricane Dorian – having threatened the US since he took office.
“We don’t even know what’s coming at us. All we know is it’s possibly the biggest. I have – I’m not sure that I’ve ever even heard of a Category 5. I knew it existed. And I’ve seen some Category 4’s – you don’t even see them that much,” Trump said at a briefing with officials at FEMA’s headquarters in Washington, DC.
“But a Category 5 is something that – I don’t know that I’ve ever even heard the term other than I know it’s there.”
If the rhetoric seemed familiar, it wasn’t your imagination. It was two years ago this month when Trump first said, “I never even know a Category 5 existed.” The president has repeated the line and similar phrases several times since, including at an event four months ago.
It’s routinely difficult to know whether Trump genuinely believes what he’s saying, though in this case, if he keeps saying he’s never heard of a Category 5 hurricane, after repeatedly being made aware of Category 5 hurricanes, it doesn’t reflect well on the president’s ability to learn and remember new information.
But circling back to a point we discussed a couple of years ago, I also wonder if this is part of a clumsy effort at self-aggrandizement. As a Washington Post piece put in 2017, “By focusing on the historic epicness of the hurricane, Trump has repeatedly turned attention to his role in confronting the disaster.”
Or put another way, in Trump’s mind, previous presidents – mere mortals – may have had to deal with smaller, regular ol’ hurricanes, but it falls on the shoulders of true giants of history to deal with the challenges of major hurricanes.