In the span of seventy-two hours, President Donald Trump has fumed and fired a health chief with a penchant for taxpayer-funded private jets, bragged about a recovery process in Puerto Rico that bears little resemblance to reality on the ground, lashed the mayor of the island’s capital city for questioning the federal response, and viewed a golf tournament from the “commissioner’s suite” at a country club that costs $500,000 to join.
The whiplash weekend just past the eight-month mark of Trump’s presidency reflects an administration still dictated by the personal whims of the President, who aides and friends describe as continually agitated by a series of unfulfilled campaign promises and convinced the counsel from his hired hands has steered him woefully off course.
As Trump settled into another weekend at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, the questions about his competence as leader grew louder. Widespread suffering on Puerto Rico has been unmatched by the rhetoric coming from the White House, where the recovery effort is described in far rosier terms.
Questions about Trump’s leadership are not new, but the unmet needs of Puerto Rico — the majority of the island is without power, while drinking water and fuel remain scarce — have placed his shirking of presidential norms into sharper relief than ever.
Trump, watching cable news coverage of the devastated island, has grown progressively more angry at depictions of a botched federal response, which he believes contradict the accounts of coordination and aid delivery that have been included in his regular briefings. Over the weekend, he aimed his frustration at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz,
“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,”
Trump tweeted in part. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
The mayor, in turn, insisted in an interview with CNN that she would not be distracted by “small comments, by politics, by petty issues. This is one goal, and it is to save lives.”
A day later, the fallout was apparent on the Sunday morning talk shows.
“It’s not appropriate,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who has frequently criticized Trump, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I mean, when people are in the middle of a disaster, you don’t start trying to criticize them. I don’t know what to say. It’s just not the way that I think it ought to be handled.”
“You just don’t get into who’s bad or who’s good, no matter what they say,” Kasich said. “You have to ignore it. You got to be bigger than the nonsense.”
The online argument was perhaps not unexpected, since the President has frequently launched angry Twitter tirades on Saturday mornings from his private clubs. Last weekend, Trump consulted his coterie of aides about going after National Football League players who have knelt during the national anthem; despite a tepid reaction, he launched into a weekend-long assault on the players anyway.
The move, Trump seemed to believe, would appeal to the base of white rural voters who helped fuel his unlikely rise from reality television star to United States President. Polling this week seemed to bear that out: almost 9 in 10 Republicans surveyed by CNN said kneeling during the national anthem is the wrong thing to do. But among that majority, 32% disagreed with Trump’s decision to criticize the players.
The NFL spat — which Trump was still prodding on Twitter a week later — reflected the President’s deep-seated concerns about support from the base of voters who elected him.
Trump’s appeal to the white working-class voters who propelled him into office has always been built on an unlikely ability to appear sympathetic to their concerns, a remarkable political feat for a billionaire real-estate developer whose brand was rooted in wealth and indulgence.
It was that inclination that drove Trump’s fury this week at Tom Price, his ousted health chief, whose use of taxpayer dollars to fund private air travel undercut Trump’s promise to rid Washington of its excesses. Speaking on Friday, Trump acknowledged that it was the appearance of wasting of taxpayer dollars — and not necessarily the private jets themselves — that had so enraged him.
“I was disappointed because I didn’t like it, cosmetically or otherwise,” Trump said Friday as he departed the White House for his golf club in New Jersey. “I was disappointed. And you know, this is an administration that saves hundreds of millions of dollars on renegotiating things. So I don’t like to see somebody that perhaps is the perception that it wasn’t right.”
The familiar unfolding of a Washington scandal — revelation, anger, botched clean-up, Friday afternoon firing — was a glimmer of normalcy for an administration that has been anything but routine. Trump’s quick action reflected his growing concern that voters who elected him into office are losing patience not only with his stalled agenda and dealmaking with Democrats, but also his inability to fundamentally change the entrenched ways of Washington.
Inside the White House, Trump’s concerns about losing the support of his base have blanketed much of his decision-making, according to people he’s spoken with. As summer ended without a decisive legislative win, Trump has only grown more insistent on following the volatile – but, in his view, winning – political instincts that aides have at times attempted to rein in.
Critical upcoming decisions on the Iran nuclear deal and a nominee for Federal Reserve chairman – both expected to come in mid-October – are being considered partly for how they’ll play with Trump’s base, people familiar with Trump’s thinking said.
While Trump begrudgingly agreed to support the establishment-backed candidate in Alabama’s special Senate election, he offered only scant praise during his one campaign event for him. When Sen. Luther Strange lost to far-right Roy Moore in last week’s primary contest, an irritated Trump used the episode to further question the political instincts of his team.
Afterward, Trump’s aides shrugged off the loss of the candidate who Trump backed, suggesting instead that Moore’s win was a sign that Trump-style politics is alive and well.
“I think that this is an extension of what we saw last year, which is that when some voters have a chance to vote against Washington and the establishment, they will do exactly that, especially after we haven’t had a lot of legislative victories,” said Kellyane Conway, the President’s senior counselor.
Trump’s critics say it’s his laser focus on a white political base that’s also driving his combative stance toward Puerto Rico, a US territory that cast ballots in primary contests but does not have an electoral vote. Many have identified racial undertones while comparing his response to Puerto Rico to his widely praised action after hurricanes hit Texas and Florida.
An unusually biting commentary on “Saturday Night Live” underscored the view: “It’s like when anybody darker than your golf pants has a problem, you’re thinking: How can I make this worse?” said Michael Che, the normally low-key host of “Weekend Update.”
The White House insists those claims are without merit, and after the President’s tweets on Saturday, officials scrambled to back up Trump’s claims, painting San Juan mayor Cruz as a showboater who had spent more time on television than coordinating recovery efforts.
“I think it’s unfair to say that we haven’t done everything we can, because we have done everything that we can and we will continue to do so,” Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney said on CNN. “It’s unfortunate that the San Juan mayor wants to sort of go against the grain. We would love to have her on team as we all pull the same direction.”
By Saturday afternoon, the White House had cobbled together a graphic timeline of the federal response to Puerto Rico, denoting when rescue teams and aid convoys arrived. But if the image was meant to impart evidence of a robust effort, it also underscored the hardships Puerto Ricans still face: Only one hospital on the island is fully operational, the graphic stated, and only half of the dialysis centers are open.
The White House, cognizant of Trump appearing to take the weekend off at his golf course, scheduled a series of briefing phone calls from 2 to 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. Each one was scheduled to last no longer than15 minutes, however, and one was with a former governor of Puerto Rico who currently works as a lobbyist in Washington.
No such calls appeared on Trump’s Sunday schedule; instead, the White House announced that the President would travel by helicopter to the Liberty National Golf Club, perched on New York Harbor, to watch the final day of the President’s Cup golf tournament from a special suite inside the clubhouse.
Trump’s three most recent predecessors — Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton — took in the tournament together last week, appearing jovial in photographs. They, along with George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, have spearheaded a hurricane charity appeal that includes Puerto Rico; Trump was not invited to participate.