It’s been more than eight days since Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, leveling the island home of 3.4 million Americans. The storm struck like an upper cut, after Hurricane Irma jabbed it en route to the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Florida two weeks earlier.
But unlike the robust responses that followed Irma and Hurricane Harvey before that, President Donald Trump all but sidelined himself in the aftermath.
Following a tweet to the Puerto Rican governor late last Wednesday, Trump over the next five days, as the scale of the humanitarian crisis became increasingly clear, dedicated himself almost exclusively to attacking and riling up opposition to pro football players protesting racial inequality and police brutality.
Trump might well be Teflon with his supporters, but it has become increasingly clear that his initial, relative indifference to Puerto Rico – a stark contrast to the White House’s unrelenting public focus on Texas and Florida – is poised to cast another long shadow on a presidency that has struggled to get out of its own way.
But this not simply a question of competence or empathy. More seasoned executives have stumbled in their responses to natural disasters. Rather, it strikes at the heart of many Americans’ concerns about Trump – his fitness to serve.
Fifty-six percent of voters quizzed in a recent Quinnipiac University poll said he is unfit for the office. Both for its tone and substance, his response to the crisis in Puerto Rico is unlikely to change many minds.
On September 25, when the devastation became too much ignore, Trump unleashed an inscrutable series of tweets that veered from self congratulations to a critical appraisal of Puerto Rico’s financial situation – as if the island’s debt in some way mitigated the government’s responsibility to it – and back to another assurance FEMA was doing its job.
Then, speaking alongside Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Tuesday, Trump repeatedly patted himself on the back for his administration’s “massive” response, praising Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for praising him, before mapping out – quite literally – the fundamental challenge.
The effort in Puerto Rico, he said, “is the most difficult job because it’s on the island – it’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s out in the ocean. You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states.”
Trump’s impromptu geography lesson invited mockery on social media, but it also confirmed something more worrying – what many had feared as the days dragged on after the initial trauma: the President appeared less concerned, and knowledgeable, about the situation on the ground (hence the filibustering replies to fairly basic questions) than in gobbling up stray praise.
Even his most basic assurance was colored by a note on his own experience.
“The people are fantastic people,” Trump said. “I grew up in New York, so I know many people from Puerto Rico. I know many Puerto Ricans. And these are great people, and we h