As he braces for Hurricane Florence, President Donald Trump is stoking new outrage over his refusal to accept any blame for the relief effort following Puerto Rico’s monster storm last year.
On Tuesday he insisted the operation had been “incredibly successful,” despite shocking new figures putting the death toll at nearly 3,000.
Again Wednesday morning, Trump said his administration’s work in Puerto Rico was not appreciated.
“We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!” Trump tweeted.
The President’s refusal to ever admit a mistake and to hype his own perceived achievements struck a jarring note, even as he tried to project a smoother response to the potentially historic hurricane bearing down on the Carolinas.
Every hurricane season challenges presidents, bringing tests of organization and coordination with state and local governments, political positioning and empathy, given the multiday relief operations, budget emergencies and grave humanitarian consequences that often unfold.
As a major hurricane approaches, everyone’s focus should be on saving lives. But each storm also has a political dimension. For a White House under siege over Bob Woodward’s new book and an anonymous New York Times op-ed by a senior official criticizing the president, days of news coverage of the storm may offer a short breathing space.
A strong performance by the president might even temporarily boost his ebbing approval ratings. But the risks are also high – no one in the White House will need reminding that a presidency already in crisis simply cannot afford the new hit of a botched response.
Trump appeared in the Oval Office alongside a map showing the expected path of Florence, which is expected to blast the East Coast with damaging winds and saturating rainfall from early on Friday. He had a simple message.
“We are as ready as anybody has ever been,” Trump said, projecting an image of resolve and seamless management at a time when his leadership style is being criticized as never before, as he appeared with top Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security chiefs.
The President warned the storm would be “tremendously big and tremendously wet” and that the government was sparing “no expense” and was “totally prepared.”
The first priority of any White House ahead of a storm is to ensure that lines of communication are open with local authorities and federal resources are ready to deploy. A President also has an incomparable megaphone to warn people to obey evacuation orders.
But hurricane season is also a nervous time for White House press operations. Presidents have taken serious political hits for botching relief efforts – the most notorious occasion was when Hurricane Katrina in 2005 helped devastate George W. Bush’s second term.
Trump fumbled in his first hurricane season. His visit to Texas to assess conditions after Hurricane Harvey was criticized because of his upbeat rhetoric that at times seemed more in keeping with a political campaign than a relief effort.
His apparent fascination with the size of storms and their destructive potential, which fits his often-hyperbolic view of the world, can sound off-key.
Still, it’s not easy for new presidents to find the right tone at moments of national peril, and it sometimes takes time for them to adjust to the role of consoler-in-chief – one reason why Trump’s hurricane response will be closely watched this year.
Shadow of Puerto Rico
Often last year, Trump appeared most keen to paint his administration’s efforts as a huge success, awarding his team top marks for the federal response to Maria, even though much of Puerto Rico was without power for months after the storm.
In Puerto Rico, Trump was also seen throwing rolls of paper towels to the crowd at a photo-op at a distribution center outside San Juan, even as stories of a humanitarian crisis were beginning to emerge.
Earlier this month, the island’s governor formally raised the death toll from 64 to an estimated 2,975 following a study conducted by researchers at George Washington University.
Still, Trump will not accept any blame. The White House has put the problems down to deficiencies with the commonwealth’s power grid that existed before the hurricane struck.
“I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful. Puerto Rico was actually our toughest one of all because it’s an island. You can’t truck things onto it. Everything is by boat,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday.
“The job that FEMA and law enforcement and everybody did, working along with the governor in Puerto Rico, I think, was tremendous. I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success,” the President said, characteristically conjuring an alternative reality when the prevailing one is uncomfortable for him politically.
But Trump’s continued claims of success despite the elevated death toll seem inappropriate, a point made by one of his principal critics on the issue, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
“The President keeps adding insult to injury and I think his words are despicable.” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday.
“They really do not have any connection with reality. It just shows that for him, everything is about him and political posturing. The man has no idea, he has no solidarity, no sympathy, no empathy for anything that does not make him look good,” she said.
“He says he has done a good job when 3,000 people have died.”
Democratic rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is running for a House of Representatives seat from New York, also took exception to Trump’s latest self-congratulatory remarks.
“Some of my PR family JUST got power a few weeks ago. People are developing respiratory issues partly due to airborne fungal spores from lack of proper cleanup. The admin’s response to Puerto Rico has been a disaster,” she tweeted.
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas said Tuesday on CNN’s “The Situation Room” that for the President to brag about his government’s response to Maria when nearly 3,000 people had died was “an insult to humanity.”
Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, whose state is within Florence’s projected track, declined to comment about Trump’s remarks on Puerto Rico. But he said he was confident in preparations for the current emergency.
“I am going to tell you the cooperation and response that I have experienced with this FEMA versus any FEMA for the 25 years that I’ve been here has been exemplary,” he said.
CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this article.