It’s been more than eight days since Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, leveling the island home of 3.4 million Americans. The storm struck like an upper cut, after Hurricane Irma jabbed it en route to the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Florida two weeks earlier.
But unlike the robust responses that followed Irma and Hurricane Harvey before that, President Donald Trump all but sidelined himself in the aftermath.
Following a tweet to the Puerto Rican governor late last Wednesday, Trump over the next five days, as the scale of the humanitarian crisis became increasingly clear, dedicated himself almost exclusively to attacking and riling up opposition to pro football players protesting racial inequality and police brutality.
Trump might well be Teflon with his supporters, but it has become increasingly clear that his initial, relative indifference to Puerto Rico – a stark contrast to the White House’s unrelenting public focus on Texas and Florida – is poised to cast another long shadow on a presidency that has struggled to get out of its own way.
But this not simply a question of competence or empathy. More seasoned executives have stumbled in their responses to natural disasters. Rather, it strikes at the heart of many Americans’ concerns about Trump – his fitness to serve.
Fifty-six percent of voters quizzed in a recent Quinnipiac University poll said he is unfit for the office. Both for its tone and substance, his response to the crisis in Puerto Rico is unlikely to change many minds.
On September 25, when the devastation became too much ignore, Trump unleashed an inscrutable series of tweets that veered from self congratulations to a critical appraisal of Puerto Rico’s financial situation – as if the island’s debt in some way mitigated the government’s responsibility to it – and back to another assurance FEMA was doing its job.
Then, speaking alongside Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Tuesday, Trump repeatedly patted himself on the back for his administration’s “massive” response, praising Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for praising him, before mapping out – quite literally – the fundamental challenge.
The effort in Puerto Rico, he said, “is the most difficult job because it’s on the island – it’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s out in the ocean. You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states.”
Trump’s impromptu geography lesson invited mockery on social media, but it also confirmed something more worrying – what many had feared as the days dragged on after the initial trauma: the President appeared less concerned, and knowledgeable, about the situation on the ground (hence the filibustering replies to fairly basic questions) than in gobbling up stray praise.
Even his most basic assurance was colored by a note on his own experience.
“The people are fantastic people,” Trump said. “I grew up in New York, so I know many people from Puerto Rico. I know many Puerto Ricans. And these are great people, and we have to help them.”
Twenty-four hours later, he hinted at what he made out to be a more compelling tie – to industrial interests.
“We have a lot of shippers and a lot of people and a lot of people who work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted,” he said on Wednesday, a reference to the nearly century-old protectionist law requiring goods, like storm aid, shipped between American ports to be carried on mostly US-made ships, owned and operated primarily by Americans.
Republican Sen. John McCain quickly fired back, tweeting that the “shipping industry supports #JonesAct b/c it’s protectionist. #PuertoRico deserves better than policy decisions driven by special interests.”
The White House finally took action early Thursday morning, issuing a waiver that will at least temporarily lift the restrictions. But the situation now seems locked into cycles of increasing desperation. More than 10,000 containers filled with supplies are now effectively stuck at port, with truckers unable to fuel their vehicles and, in many cases, finding some of the hardest hit places on the island unreachable in any case.
During an interview on CNN’s “Inside Politics” Thursday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said the time has come for the administration to hand the job – in particular, the complicated task of establishing new supply chains – over to the Pentagon.
“The only people who can restore it, who have the capacity to do so quickly in the short term, and then turn it over to the authorities there in Puerto Rico, is the Department of Defense,” said Rubio, who visited Puerto Rico on Monday.
Even as the Trump administration now seems to be coming around to the magnitude of the disaster – if not a clear-eyed assessment of its own performance.
Of the ongoing efforts, Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said Thursday, “I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.”
Asked to explain the “good news,” Duke cited the coordination between federal and local authorities. But just hours earlier, FEMA Administrator Brock Long in an interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan, said he was “not satisfied” with the overall response. He then seemed to scold San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who had very publicly broadcast her concerns, by suggesting she had not adequately plugged herself into the relief efforts.
“The mayor of San Juan needs to understand that there is a joint federal field office in San Juan right now where unified planning and execution is taking place, with the governor, with my staff, with Department of Defense,” he said. “So if there unmet needs, the mayor needs to be tied into the JFO that’s in her city.”
Either petulant or simply frustrated, Long underlined the apparently frayed lines of communication between the government in Washington and the people of Puerto Rico.
Now it’s up to Trump to make it right – and fast. A first step, perhaps, came on Thursday, when the Pentagon appointed Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan to head up the military response on the island. But, no matter the outcome, the questions seem sure to linger: what took so long – and why?