President Donald Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria has been worse than President George W. Bush’s slow and poorly coordinated reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Neither responded as quickly as they could have but Trump also displays troubling temperamental traits that have plagued his presidency. Rather than taking responsibility, Trump takes criticisms personally as he did with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz after she criticized the slow pace of hurricane relief efforts.
Along with defensiveness, Trump demonstrates denial, distraction and deceit.
These are traits we’ve seen over and over, starting with matters as inconsequential as the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration versus Obama’s and the massive Women’s Marches around the country. Trump could not abide that fewer people came to see him sworn in than attended the other events and he lied and had then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer lie about it, too.
Hurricane Maria is a much more significant situation. Trump again misled and failed to lead. After a decent initial response to the hurricane, which included a disaster declaration, Trump devoted little public and private time to a response. Instead he focused on football players’ decisions to kneel in protest. When, a few days later, he said things were “doing well” in Puerto Rico, this simply was not true.
As the Washington Post noted, “Trump’s rosy assessment of the federal response has also contrasted sharply with the comments of federal officials on the ground. Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, who was named this week to lead recovery efforts, told reporters Friday that there were not enough people and assets to help Puerto Rico combat what has become a humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of the storm.”
Tweeting recently, Trump incorrectly blamed Puerto Ricans for not doing enough for themselves. Trump called journalists working to share pictures and reports with the world “fake news.” Trump falsely claimed that all the buildings on the island had been inspected. And he claimed that leaders who had asked for help were “politically motivated ingrates.”
Meanwhile, the pain inflicted on the people of Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria is remarkable and won’t be overcome quickly. This weekend, electricity had been restored to only 5 percent of the population. Everything from water filtration plants to sewage systems were not operating.
Remote areas were in worse shape than the cities. Lack of power put at risk people who needed dialysis to clean their blood, specialized equipment to breathe, and refrigeration to store certain medicines, including insulin for diabetics.
There is no doubt restoring Puerto Rico’s infrastructure is a massive challenge and responding is complex, difficult and requires great skill and resources.
There are also other issues facing our country and world that have immense effects on human beings, although typically not with the blatant and immediate harm of a natural disaster.
In foreign policy, Trump’s personal prickliness and self-centeredness is deeply dangerous. He seems to delight in taunting Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling him “Little Rocket Man.” In the same tweet, Trump undermined his own secretary of state’s efforts to pursue diplomacy aimed at lessening the possibility of nuclear war.
In the domestic realm, Trump once admitted that health care policy was more complicated than he expected, but he seemed to never learn the details. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is sabotaging the Affordable Care Act.
Having never put in the time and effort to understand what arrangements would work better, Trump could not negotiate effectively, nor go to the public to explain various bills and try to gain support.
A slipshod process was also followed in Congress. The House of Representatives voted on a bill before the Congressional Budget Office released its analysis, and most there supported it, including Rep. Bruce Poliquin. Released later, the CBO report showed that if it had been signed into law, over 20 million people, most insured by Medicaid, would lose coverage, and those cuts would be used to fund tax cuts for the wealthy.
When the Senate lacked the votes on various health care bills, Trump blamed Sen. John McCain who, like Sen. Susan Collins, called for a rational, deliberative process and required a plan crafted with care.
Leaders have to see reality clearly, digging into details and stepping back to speak with clarity. Unfortunately for all of us, Trump’s temperament and habits make it difficult for him to address problems, whether the size of Hurricane Maria or much smaller.