Juliette Kayyem: President Trump's response to the island will be what future presidents will try to avoid during crisis
Instead of people wondering if a tragedy will be the next Hurricane Katrina, they'll wonder if it's the next Puerto Rico, she writes
Editor’s Note: CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-seller, “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, host of the national security podcast, “The SCIF,” and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
It is a difficult task to turn the memory of Hurricane Katrina into a quaint story of well-meaning government actors unable to save a city from destruction. President Donald Trump managed to do that on Saturday morning when he essentially blamed Puerto Rico and the mayor of San Juan, in a series of tweets, for the devastation they are facing. From his own golf club, Trump attacked rather than reflected and helped.
I am a homeland and national security analyst for CNN and for this op-ed page. I keep my emotions in check. Indeed, having been in the field for some time, having worked on many disasters, I kept my criticisms to a minimum, as I know how hard disaster management is. I saw the disturbing images from Puerto Rico, but knowing the dedication and expertise of the professionals working the disaster I believed there had to be an explanation.
For example, I understood that the challenges of moving commodities quickly on a devastated island is arduous – that the proverbial “last mile” to distribution is the greatest challenge of any mass mobilization. I had worked within the confines of the antiquated Jones Act, the law that prohibits foreign vessels from shipping to American ports, but understood that waivers, like the one that Trump issued, were readily available and the Act itself was likely not the cause of a slow response.
I, like everyone else, had seen the tremendous work of Trump’s homeland security team in hurricanes in Houston and Miami just weeks before. In some ways, I had convinced myself that Trump was a bit player in this tragedy.
No longer. A good man who has empathy, or even knows how to pretend to have it, would not make the unfolding tragedy about himself. A confident President would not accuse Puerto Ricans of wanting “everything done for them.” A self-reflective leader able to critically assess would question and push his team to send more resources and get the federal response moving. A strong Commander-in-Chief would know that his main duty is not to praise himself or lash back because of a bruised ego, but to use his global platform to provide two key needs: numbers (responders, commodities, ships, food, water, debris removal, etc) and hope.
Hope. It’s the easiest thing to do, to let Puerto Ricans, our own citizens, know that we understand their frustration and fear and we will not accept anything short of resolution.
And if it isn’t bad enough for the Puerto Ricans, an additional casualty of Trump’s defensiveness and vitriol are the first responders working the hurricane response. While his tweets Saturday morning pretend to defend FEMA and the troops – and White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders would later clearly try to suggest that the critics of Trump were being misinformed about the President’s support of the island – they do the exact opposite. In the field, federal and local workers are toiling day in and day out to get the job done; there may be disagreements, but in every tragedy, those divisions fall away and everyone works together to harness their collective expertise, save lives and rebuild.
Trump just built a big wall between them. He is good at that, even in a tragedy. He has managed to divide rather than unite. By calling out the party affiliation of a mayor – a Latina leader – he has put politics right at the door of tragedy.
It is dangerous, and it is historic. Not even President George W. Bush went down that path during Hurricane Katrina, a crisis that will no longer serve as THE metric for future presidents’ failures. In the years ahead, we will stop asking “is this the President’s Hurricane Katrina?” Instead, it will be “is this the President’s Puerto Rico?” Trump has moved the goal post. That wasn’t easy to do. Mission accomplished.