President Donald Trump faced a major test on Tuesday as he traveled to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico: Show the American citizens struggling for survival on the island that he understood their plight, sympathized with them and was doing everything in his power to make it better as quickly as he could.
He failed. Hugely.
Soon after touching down in Puerto Rico, Trump said the following to government officials:
“Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous — hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this. What is your death count as of this moment? 17? 16 people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”
Where to begin????
How about that suggesting that what happened in Puerto Rico – an entire island devastated, huge swaths without power, food and water in short supply – wasn’t a “real” catastrophe because not that many people died?
Or, what about using death count as a talking point? Yes, it’s true that far more people died in Katrina (1,800+) than did in Maria (16). But, for the families of the 16 who died, that loss is no less heart-breaking. Loss of life is loss of life. And we’re not even dealing with the thousands of people whose lives have been fundamentally altered, forever, as a result of this storm – for whom things will never be the same and may well be far, far worse.
(Nota bene: After Trump left Puerto Rico, the country’s governor Ricardo Rosello announced that the death toll had risen to 34.)
“Proud” is not the right word for how people should – or do – feel. It’s not even close.
It’s the opposite of empathy. Instead of mourning with and for those who lost their lives, Trump is using those who lost their lives as a way to make a broader argument that the media’s criticism of him is unfair and biased.
See, I told you I was doing a great job, Trump was saying. Everyone here thinks so!
Me, me, me, me.
While Trump’s comments about the relatively small number of deaths will draw the most attention – and rightly so – there’s so much else in Trump’s relatively brief comments that speaks to the fact that he lacks the empathy gene. Among them:
* “It’s a great trip. Your weather is second to none but every once in a while you get hit. And you really got hit.”
Your weather is second to none? The country has literally been leveled by a hurricane.
* “You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack. We’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico.”
Trump was, ostensibly, joking about how much money the recovery efforts were costing him. Listen to the audio and see how many people laughed. Also, this is like buying the school textbooks your kid needs and then repeatedly reminding him how much the books costs and how he kind of, sort of owes you.
* “He started right at the beginning appreciating what we did…He was giving us the highest grades.”
Trump is praising Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló here – but really he is praising himself. This governor, who I didn’t know before this storm, said nice things about me. Which you should hear. Because people are saying some not nice things.
* “She was saying such nice things about all of the people who have worked so hard. Jenniffer, do you think you can say a little bit about what you said about us?”
Trump is referring here to Puerto Rico Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, who he says he “watched’ (on TV of course) say nice things about how Trump and his administration handled the hurricane. After Gonzalez-Colon finished praising Trump, the president added: “We saw those comments and everyone saw those comments.
* “General Kelly is a four star. You don’t get any better than a four star.”
Trump is very keen on highlighting the accomplishments of the generals on his staff – most notably his chief of staff John Kelly. But, why is Kelly’s military rank relevant when it comes to Puerto Rico’s recovery? Watch the video. Kelly seems wholly uncomfortable being trotted out by Trump in this moment.
The whole 13+ minutes is surreal. Time and time again, Trump makes the whole thing about him – using the various officials, military and otherwise, around him to reinforce the ideas that he is doing a great job. On display is someone wholly wrapped up in himself, incapable of understanding that this moment – on the ground of a historic natural disaster for the Puerto Rican people –was not about him.
This is Trump off the telemprompter. Twitter Trump. Trump’s real personality – when words are not being carefully selected for him.
Trump knew – because everyone wrote about it and TV talked about it relentlessly – that the big question today in Puerto Rico was whether he could show some actual empathy, some human kindness to people he didn’t know but who were still his constituents.
And, even knowing that, Trump delivered a navel-gazing, self-championing, victimhood-seeking speech that reeked of tone-deafness and out-of-touch-ism.
Even for this President, who has redefined presidential – and not for the better – this is a truly remarkable low.
But he wasn’t done.
According to an on-the-ground report from CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Trump seemed to see himself in a sort of Santa Claus role while handing out supplies to disaster victims. Here’s a bit of Liptak’s reporting:
Trump, along with the first lady and the governor, shook hands with the crowd. Trump, still wearing a wind breaker, picked up a can of tinned chicken breast and held it up for the crowd to see.
He handed a pack of batteries to a man, as many in the crowd held up their cell phones.
Trump held up a flashlight and showed it to the crowd, while shaking hands.
The first lady followed close behind.
Trump kept picking up items from tables laden with supplies, showing them to the crowd and handing them to people with outstretched hands.
“There’s a lot of love in this room,” the President said. “Great people.”