It’s been nearly two weeks since Hurricane Maria devastated much of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, and President Donald Trump is just now getting around to visiting the island. When he finally showed up there Tuesday, it will have been long past the time it took him to make similar appearances in Texas and Florida after the clobbering they took from Hurricane Harvey last month. To call this Trump’s Katrina moment is an insult to former President George W. Bush.
It’s bad enough that Trump has treated Puerto Rico and its 3.1 million inhabitants almost as an afterthought, as if they were nationals of some foreign country rather than U.S. citizens. But for him to imply, as he did over the weekend, that they somehow have no one but themselves to blame for the natural disaster that befell them is beyond shameful.
In a particularly insensitive reprise of former President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s-era canard likening low-income African-American mothers to “welfare queens” driving Cadillacs and eating steaks, Trump lashed out Sunday at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz after she noted that federal disaster aid has been slow in reaching Puerto Rico. More than half the island is still without electricity or potable water, and aid workers are struggling to deliver food and medical supplies to people living outside major population centers.
And what was the president’s response to this obviously desperate situation? “They want everything to be done for them,” Trump griped, using the third-person plural to paint the entire island as a bunch of lazy, undeserving ingrates unwilling to lift a finger to help themselves. Trump’s choice of words, which harked back to an earlier generation’s euphemistic locutions about “those people,” couldn’t have been more heartless. It seems divisiveness has become his default position in any crisis, no matter how destructive or self-defeating the tactic may be.
For all his missteps in the aftermath of the disaster that struck New Orleans on his watch, it’s hard to imagine Bush taking a similar line toward the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Bush administration was sharply criticized at the time for its less than lackluster emergency response effort and for the president’s seeming inattention, at least initially, to the storm’s victims. But Bush did not blame New Orleans’ inhabitants for their plight. Despite a poor start he eventually went on to marshal the whole country’s support behind the federal relief and reconstruction effort.
(And let’s, for a moment, put Bush’s slow response in context. Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005. Bush’s much maligned Air Force One flyover came two days later, and he was on the ground two days after that. He was rightly criticized for the delay, yet Trump will have taken three times as long to get to Puerto Rico.)
We hope that Trump similarly will come around to a recognition of the need to unite the country after disaster strikes, and that he will make his intentions plain in that regard when he addresses his fellow citizens in Puerto Rico tomorrow. No doubt the president’s advisers are cautioning him to hold his tongue – if for no other reason than to avoid further alienating Hispanic voters on the U.S. mainland. But given Trump’s seemingly congenital inability to stay on script, it’s anybody’s guess what will actually come out when he opens his mouth.
The biggest advantage Bush had over the present incumbent was a general feeling among the public that his heart was in the right place, even though he could be clumsy with words, and his administration’s relief efforts were less than stellar. Trump, by contrast, has a habit of attacking anyone who criticizes his policies or disagrees with what he says. The nation doesn’t need a leader throwing rhetorical bombs from the luxury of his golf resort at a mayor stuck in a humanitarian crisis begging for the help her constituents need to survive. To borrow a favorite descriptor from the president’s incessant tweeting, that’s sad.