On September 20, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, killing at least 34 people (though local authorities may report many more fatalities in the coming weeks), injuring hundreds of others, and leaving more than 3 million residents without power and nearly half the population without drinking water on the flooded island to this day. On Tuesday—a full two weeks after Maria made landfall—President Donald Trump visited San Juan to meet with displaced residents and local officials. Rather than relaying his condolences and promising relief from such vast and unrelenting devastation, Trump congratulated Puerto Rico for its death toll. “You can be very proud,” Trump told one official, “only 16 instead of thousands in Katrina.” At the same noon press conference, Trump also joked that emergency spending for Puerto Rico has “thrown our budget a little out of whack.” To demonstrate the federal government’s capacity to assist with recovery efforts despite such budget concerns, Trump then visited a disaster relief distribution center and threw rolls of paper towels into a crowd.
The Trump administration’s response to Maria lags behind its own previous efforts in the wake of previous hurricanes this season. Following Hurricane Harvey, which flooded Houston a month ago, and then Hurricane Irma, which wrecked the Caribbean a week later, Maria was the third major hurricane to brutalize U.S. territory in the span of three weeks. Initially, Trump overlooked the latest desolation in Puerto Rico as if it were some foreign, unknowable development. While Congress authorized an initial round of federal spending for relief efforts, Trump launched himself into a feud with Steph Curry, LeBron James, and then the NFL as several players and teams co-opted Colin Kaepernick’s police brutality protest by kneeling and sitting through performances of the national anthem that weekend.
Three days later, Trump finally turned to address the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico with a series of tweets in which he admonished San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz for “poor leadership” throughout the crisis, accusing Cruz—who’d been managing local relief efforts from a storm shelter for several days, and who had pleaded, “We’re truly dying here … SOS,” to FEMA by way of CNN. In the past week, Trump has exacted absolute gratitude from Puerto Rican officials, and he’s repeatedly overstated the speed and effectiveness of his administration’s response. “We have been really treated very, very nicely by the governor and by everybody else,” Trump told a Rose Garden press conference last Tuesday. “They know how hard we’re working and what a good job we’re doing.” Trump prides himself despite having dispatched only a fraction of the funding, food, water, and troops that George W. Bush dispatched much earlier in his administration’s nonetheless fraught response to Hurricane Katrina wrecking New Orleans 12 years ago.
This week, Trump faces two national tragedies at once. (Yes, Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., and Puerto Ricans are natural-born U.S. citizens, despite widespread uncertainty among mainland Americans regarding the island’s status since it isn’t a state.) The more recent tragedy in Las Vegas being even more difficult for any president to address and solve. On Sunday evening, a gunman stationed at a window of a high-rise hotel floor opened fire on the Las Vegas Strip. Raining bullets down on the crowd at a Jason Aldean concert below, the shooter, Stephen Paddock, killed at least 59 people and injured 527 others. Given the unprecedented death toll, Paddock’s casualties amount to the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history. Many horrified observers across the country have called for stricter regulation of gun ownership; ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel led his Monday-night broadcast with a tearful plea for Congress to take action, and for his viewers to hold their representatives to account. In a week so defined by death tolls, Trump has tested the limits of his wild candor. His failure to assuage urgent fears and humanitarian needs reveals a calamitous void at the helm of American politics.
In episodes of national panic or sadness, many Americans will turn their attention to the president, wherever he happens to be in the world as random tragedies unfold. The president becomes the lodestar for the nation’s grief and the author of federal intelligence, resolve, and recourse following the shared disaster. Three days after 9/11, these rituals were on global display as the media and viewers rallied around George W. Bush as he patrolled Ground Zero with a flight jacket and a bullhorn. Four years later, that resilient image disintegrated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as Bush, who would come to regret one photo of him overlooking Katrina’s wreckage from the comfort of Air Force One, led a disastrous federal recovery effort in New Orleans following the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. As the Bush administration floundered, the national mood turned hostile, with news reports characterizing local scavenging and survival efforts as “looting,” grafting an ugly racist subtext onto a national catastrophe. (This happened in the aftermath of 9/11, too, as white Americans harassed and assaulted Muslims and Sikhs in wild contempt for the airline hijackers and Al Qaeda.) At an NBC celebrity telethon, Kanye West would articulate black frustrations with the cold, sluggish Katrina relief efforts with his famous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” Bush would later recall Kanye’s criticism as “an all-time low” for his presidency.
For all his grave and dangerous failures, Bush is a downright sympathetic figure compared to Trump, as far as recovery efforts go. Bush didn’t tangle with Kanye in the press, even after Kanye made such a viral provocation. But Trump struck out at Cruz preemptively. His angry mismanagement of the right-wing violence in Charlottesville previously established the president as a reckless leader in vulnerable moments, and his lashing out at Cruz confirms that Trump’s defensiveness isn’t limited to classic partisan disputes. As effortlessly as Trump indulges culture war skirmishes, such as his civil rights disputes with professional athletes, as part of his job, he resists all manners of accountability for even the most critical operations of the federal government. The fact that he is often caught ranting on Twitter or golfing in Bedminster when disaster strikes suggests inattention to even the most rote, ceremonial duties of his office. It is a sign that Trump sees himself as a key figure in processing right-wing rage, but only a purely incidental figure in processing national grief.
This week, Trump faces a backlog of national mourning. The Vegas massacre was a rather unnatural disaster, one that might ideally invite productive conversations about gun control, domestic violence, and the American character. Instead, Trump spoke for five minutes about the nature of evil during a televised address, and his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, insisted that a national conversation about gun control would be “premature.” In lieu of news that might flatter the president’s biases or embolden his agenda, the best Trump can do in times of crises is tweet, rant, and channel-surf.
In the White House, Trump is glued to his televisions. His aides rightly worry that Fox News and CNN segments often inflame the president’s biases and derail his attention span in critical moments. Trump’s chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly, widely regarded as a disciplinary force within a famously chaotic White House, has worked to refocus Trump from relying on (and reacting to) cable news coverage to give a greater share of his attention to official briefings—to minimal avail. And so the U.S. is governed by a compulsive binge-watcher whose itinerary is largely programmed by Fox News. Trump’s intensive media diet makes for a disheartening feedback loop: Americans turn to their televisions, expecting to see the president assuage their specific fears as well as their broad anxiety, but with Trump they will find that the president is mostly busy tweeting and watching television himself. Absent from TV screens, then, is a leader willing to offer moral authority and practical credibility. In times of crisis, Trump leaves a void in the national conscience.
This void isn’t benign; it is malignant, mendacious, and bewildering. In San Juan, Trump expressed some grotesque misapprehension of the events that transpired two days earlier in Las Vegas: “I do have to say, how quickly the police department was able to get in was really very much of a miracle,” Trump said about a shooter who opened fire for nearly 15 minutes and then killed himself before a SWAT team closed in on his position. Meanwhile, as the president addressed the devastation that surrounded him, Trump once again understated the extent of the hurricane’s damage while overstating the success of federal relief efforts. In Trump’s contempt for Cruz, the president dared her and anyone else to criticize his administration’s response to Maria: “... people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military,” Trump insists.
The fact that Trump will take to Twitter within minutes of Fox News or CNN airing any given segment or opinion that offends him suggests a childish intemperance that overrides any sense of decency or even formality. The Vegas massacre proved a rare exception. On Monday morning, the president and the first lady stood on the South Lawn and led a national moment of silence to commemorate victims of the Vegas massacre, and then he simply moved on. For Trump, the moment of silence was a rare display of restraint and decorum that onlookers might expect from a more, shall we say, conventional president. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Trump’s silence was frustrating and unforgivable. But given his chaotic temperament, coupled with his party’s opposition to many national gun regulations, Trump’s brief remarks Monday and passing silence are perhaps the best guidance that Americans might expect.
Trump will visit Vegas on Wednesday, a day after his visit to San Juan, and the best anyone can hope is that the president will pass through town without somehow making the massacre all about himself. From Trump, a moment of silence might indeed be the ideal contribution.