Hurricane Maria shows Trump revels in conflict, chaos amid crisis

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  • Under pressure, Trump improvises, polarizes and victimizes
  • Trump has also been quick with excuses

Washington (CNN)Washington has wondered for months how President Donald Trump would handle his first genuine crisis.

As Puerto Rico struggles after Hurricane Maria, the answer is now clear: Trump's response has been a frenzied study in microcosm of his turbulent and combative presidency itself.
Many of the traits of Trump's political persona, from his contempt for convention to his acute sensitivity towards the merest personal slight have been magnified as criticism has slowly built over his crisis management. Under pressure, Trump improvises, polarizes and victimizes. He has shown himself content to frame his own reality -- in this case on the true nature of the island's plight -- if the prevailing one is unfavorable to him.
    The President has also displayed an obsessive interest in how he is perceived, as critics have faulted the scale and speed of the rescue and relief effort after the storm pulverized the island nearly two weeks ago. His frustration has been spilling out in prolonged Twitter storms, offering the kind of insights into his state of mind that Americans have had to wait for autobiographies or historians to uncover during previous presidencies.
    Trump has also been quick with excuses: The administration has repeatedly pointed out that Puerto Rico is an island surrounded by the sea, so is tougher to serve with a massive aid effort than a state like Florida or Texas.
    And as he did during his campaign, the President has sought to defend himself by seeking out enemies to frame as scapegoats to deflect blame from his own missteps -- for instance, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
    These glimpses of Trump's character suggest that expectations that he could hit a more conventionally "presidential" register when the trivia of daily political life is replaced by life-and-death decisions, may be misplaced. They may also offer pointers as to how he would lead in a national security crisis with graver global implications than Puerto Rico's troubles, perhaps in the standoff with North Korea over its nuclear program, or in the case of an explosion of tension with Iran. The drama of hurricane season is also offering pointers to how Trump sees the job of the presidency itself.

    National divides

    At the same time, his conduct seems certain to deepen national divides over his performance. Critics, such as liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, view his behavior as "unspeakable," while Trump's supporters view it through their belief that the media is pursuing a vendetta against Trump, born of an elite disdain for his convention-busting style.
    But as often in his presidency, Trump's reactions to criticism over the last few days appear to have weakened his own political position. No one, for instance, would deny the difficulty of responding to such a monstrous storm. At the same time, journalists on the island have a duty to describe what they are seeing -- and before Trump started slamming the coverage, their reports were not framed as criticisms of the President himself.
    Trump's leadership style over the last few days does not just shed light on his character when it is tested by adversity. It suggests that his view of the job of the presidency itself is different than his predecessors.
    There's been little evidence that Trump accepts that his office is a public trust and the place where the buck stops -- fairly or not. His reaction to criticism over Puerto Rico suggests the reverse, that he sees his job as more of an extension of his own ego and prestige.
    Trump spent the weekend personally rejecting the notion that there were serious problems in the relief effort, even as many Puerto Ricans still lack running water, power, gasoline and still need basic supplies.
    "We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates ... people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great military," Trump tweeted Sunday.
    Such assaults reflect the unique nature of Trump's administration.
    It is highly unlikely any other modern President -- especially in the post Hurricane Katrina age would find it appropriate to insult a local official pleading for help in a disaster zone, as Trump did with the mayor of San Juan.
    And in a Twitter blast, Trump seemed to blame the victims of the hurricane itself, saying "they want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort."
    It's also tough to image another commander in chief jetting off, as Trump did, to a luxury golf resort at the weekend amid cresting criticism of his handling of the situation and as those hit by the disaster face deprivation and devastation.
    Whether it is from hubris, obliviousness or confidence in his own political judgment, Trump apparently saw no reason to behave any differently than he normally would this weekend, heading to his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, before rubbing shoulders with multi-millionaire pro golfers at the President's Cup.
    Under increasing criticism, other presidents might have returned home, or sought to acknowledge shortcomings where they exist. Trump could have called a presidential broadcast to explain to Americans the complications of the relief effort, in a bid to reset the narrative, as then-President George H.W. Bush did after he was criticized for his management of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

    Unconventional method

    Trump may still attempt such a pivot when he visits the island on Tuesday, though that would require a climbdown after his approach this weekend.
    The most obvious example of Trump's unconventional method has been his feud with Cruz, who appealed for the President and government in Washington to do more to help.
    On Saturday, Trump sought to discredit her by claiming that she was told by Democrats to be "nasty" to him.
    He also savaged the media, despite their reports of the serious medical and humanitarian situation in Puerto Rico, setting up the familiar conceit for his supporters that criticism of him is simply a media invention.
    "The Fake News Networks are working overtime in Puerto Rico doing their best to take the spirit away from our soldiers and first R's. Shame!" he tweeted on Saturday.
    The question now is whether Trump's already parlous political fortunes risk being further damaged by his role on Puerto Rico.
    There has been much talk of Puerto Rico being his "Katrina" in reference to the botched hurricane response that debilitated George W. Bush's presidency. Yet experience would suggest that even if the situation deteriorates badly, Trump is unlikely to see the bottom fall out of his presidency.
    In this sense, his low approval ratings actually may be liberating for the President. His unshakeable base, giving him between 35% and 40% in most polls, seems impervious to the forces that normally shift perceptions of a politician.
    While there were signs that his handling of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma gave him an uptick in the polls, there's probably little genuine upside for the President either. He has previously given his enemies plenty of reasons to despise him and it seems inevitable that Trump is forever destined to remain below 45% in the polls and above 35%.
    Trump's defenders say the narrative that the Puerto Rican relief effort is going poorly is simply the result of the media blowing it out of proportion.
    White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney admitted on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that there were complications on the island.
    But he added: "I think what you have not shown ... is the federal effort that we have got in place down there, and the fact that the governor has been very complimentary of the administration."
    Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explained that the President was within his rights to hit back at critics.
    "When the President gets attacked, he attacks back," Mnuchin said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
    But the White House's near paranoia about any suggestion that the Puerto Rico effort is not a huge success was revealed in a series of of late night press releases on Saturday, issued after Trump talked to local officials.
    According to the White House, a former Puerto Rican governor turned Washington lobbyist, Luis Fortuño, "thanked the President for his leadership."
    The current governors of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands were " very appreciative and complimentary of the administration's effort, including the President's leadership," according to another statement.