On Tuesday, President Trump visited Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria almost two weeks ago. The U.S. territory is still very much in dire straits; only 5 percent of the people there have power, and about half have access to potable water. The economic future looks bleak.
But the president seemed to be in a celebratory mood.
“I hate to tell you this, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” he said (joked? It’s hard to tell) to an assembled group of elected officials, including the territory’s governor Ricardo Rosselló. Trump was referring to disaster aid pending in Congress. FEMA has spent much less on Puerto Rico thus far than it has on Florida and Texas, also hit by hurricanes in the last month.
In a scene reminiscent of his cabinet-praise lovefest over the summer, Trump ran through the various officials, including Rosselló, who had complimented him for the federal response to the disaster — as opposed to the less cooperative mayor of San Juan, whom he insulted repeatedly over the weekend.
And, in a bit of unseemly showmanship, he commented on the relatively low death toll in Puerto Rico, which currently stands at 16, even though it’s almost certain to rise.
“Every death is a horror,” he said. But he compared Maria’s death toll favorably to a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina, where “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of people died.
(Just hours earlier, Trump had referred to the events Sunday night in Las Vegas as “in many ways, a miracle” because of law enforcement’s quick response.)
Trump’s invocation of Katrina, which turned into a political disaster for the George W. Bush administration, may be an attempt to forestall similar criticism this time around. But his Pollyannaish comments won’t change the reality on the ground, which shows clear evidence of a sloppy, slow, and generally inept government response.
Later on Tuesday, Trump continued to play his tone-deaf melody. Seemingly attempting to demonstrate a personal touch on aid distribution, Trump launched paper towels into a crowd as if he were shooting baskets.
He implied that the crisis of power outages had been solved, when fixes are actually weeks or months away:
Touring storm-ravaged homes, he told a Puerto Rican family that “we’re gonna help you out,” then added, unhelpfully, “have a good time.”
In his least painful but most amusing mishap of the day, Trump failed to recognize the difference between Air Force and Coast Guard uniforms, then covered up his mistake in extremely unconvincing fashion:
The Trump administration’s subpar response to the hurricane takes precedence over the president’s inability to offer the traditional words of comfort without veering into bizarre territory. (In the latest insult to injury, the government turned down Puerto Rico’s request to allow its citizens to use food stamps for fast food or ready-to-eat meals.) But it would be nice if Trump could act like a normal president — or, hell, a normal human being — for five hours.