After spending the weekend tweeting about the NFL and why its owners should force players to stand during the National Anthem, President Donald Trump has spent this week playing catchup on the still-unfolding humanitarian crisis in the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
On Thursday afternoon, acting Homeland Security head Elaine Duke made that task even more complicated. Duke was asked by reporters at the White House whether she was satisfied with the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria and the devastation it has wrought.
Here’s her answer (bolding is mine):
“I am very satisfied. I know it’s a hard storm to recover from but the amount of progress that’s been made, and I really would appreciate any support that we get. 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.”
Remember the context here. Puerto Rico is dealing with mass devastation. They have no power. Food is in short supply. So is water.
Given that some of those most basic needs aren’t being met – and the fact that Trump’s administration has come under fire for not moving as aggressively to address the devastation caused by Maria as it did for hurricanes Irma and Harvey – Duke’s comment feels deeply out of touch.
Remember that just yesterday, Trump had to defend himself from criticism he was distracted from Puerto Rico by his NFL fight. “Was I preoccupied? Not at all,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “Not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work.”
Focusing on process is almost never a good thing for politicians – and that goes double or even triple when you are dealing with ANY loss of life or ANY sort of humanitarian crisis.
Which is exactly what Duke did in that quote. It’s not a “good news story.” It is is a human tragedy that has cost 16 people in Puerto Rico their lives. Talking in any terms except those – especially when the problems are ongoing – is a giant mistake.
That’s not to say that politics isn’t involved in all of this. Of course it is. Anytime the country – or the world – is all watching a single event unfolding, there will be political consequences. But you don’t talk about the politics when people don’t have enough food or water. It’s unsavory in the extreme.
Duke’s comments come on the same day that Trump reversed course – waiving the Jones Act, which will allow more foreign ships to land in Puerto Rican ports and, presumably, bring the food and water people desperately need. (On Wednesday, Trump told reporters he was thinking about waiving the Jones Act but that a lot of shipping companies didn’t want him to do it.) He also appointed a three-star general named Jeffrey Buchanan to lead military efforts in support of Puerto Rico’s recovery.
Those moves will likely be clouded by Duke’s comments, which she will, almost certainly, have to apologize for.
For an administration that needed a week – at least – of flawless execution to regain its footing on Maria and Puerto Rico, Duke’s comments represent yet another stumble.