What Donald Trump Fails to Recognize About Hurricanes—and Leadership

Catastrophes, natural or man-made, can make or break leaders. They offer the ultimate opportunity to show the qualities that people seek in those whom they have chosen to take command: courage, empathy, serenity, fortitude, decisiveness. Under extreme circumstances, true leadership comes to the fore; if one does not possess the requisite qualities, their lack is immediately evident to all and sundry.

Few such leaders of modern times come to mind more readily than Winston Churchill, in the face of Hitler’s aerial onslaught against Great Britain, during the Second World War. As odd as it may seem to mention Rudy Giuliani in the same paragraph as Churchill, when Giuliani was the mayor of New York, he behaved well, even heroically, during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. His actions earned him a measure of public respect that, his latter-day transmogrification into Donald Trump’s chortling henchman notwithstanding, has endured, at least among certain Americans.

By contrast, after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, in late August of 2005, President George W. Bush flew back to Washington, D.C., from a four-week vacation at his Texas ranch, and was photographed looking down from the window of Air Force One, in passive detachment, at the devastation of New Orleans. It was one of the great failures of his two-term Presidency, and despite his trying to make up for it in the succeeding days—authorizing a massive aid package, sending in thousands of National Guard troops, and visiting the Gulf Coast—Bush never quite overcame the stigma of Katrina.

It is much the same with Trump and Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico a year ago next week. Evidently immune to the idea that he might be held to the same standards of judgment as his predecessors, Trump behaved with negligent condescension toward the disaster from the beginning. He had made two visits to Texas in the days after Hurricane Harvey hit that state, gushing fulsomely over the handling of catastrophe and “great turnout” for his visits. But he waited two weeks after Maria struck to visit Puerto Rico, and then spent a mere four hours there, during which time he was driven around a middle-class suburb of San Juan that was not badly affected, and appeared at a church where he cavalierly tossed rolls of paper towels to local residents. In a press conference, he appeared to issue a scolding for the cost of the assistance, saying, “Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” and he minimized the island’s tragedy by drawing comparisons between its reportedly low death toll and the “hundreds” of people who had died in Katrina. (The official toll in Puerto Rico eventually rose to sixty-four.)

In the year since, Trump has mentioned Puerto Rico mostly to compliment himself for his performance, as he did again on Tuesday, describing his government’s response to Maria as “an incredible, unsung success.” His rosy rendition stands in direct contradiction to the opinion of most Puerto Ricans, eighty per cent of whom view his response unfavorably, according to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Over all, the government response, at both the federal and the local levels, is viewed as having been sluggish and inefficient, with inexplicably long delays in reactivating the island’s devastated power grid and in repairing damaged roads and homes. The crisis has also deepened the unemployment problem and accelerated an exodus of people from the island.

Meanwhile, the Milken Institute School of Public Health, at George Washington University, published a report that found that nearly three thousand people ultimately died as a result of Hurricane Maria. Trump’s reaction—against the backdrop of a new hurricane season, and with Hurricane Florence approaching the coast of the Carolinas—was to decry the report as an attempt by Democrats to besmirch his reputation. “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” he tweeted on Thursday. “When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. . . . Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3,000. . . . This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible.”

Those comments elicited an unusually bipartisan condemnation. In Florida, where a large influx of Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans have become a highly courted political constituency, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, tweeted, “I disagree with @POTUS. . . . I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand.” Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican who represents the Miami area, said that Trump’s remarks were “heartless,” and that only “a warped mind” would “turn this statistic into fake news.” In Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, who has verbally sparred with Trump since last year, tweeted, “YOUR LACK OF RESPECT IS APPALLING,” and “Simply put: delusional, paranoid, and unhinged from any sense of reality. Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT.”

Trump’s self-centeredness and his lack of empathy are not a point of contention for most Americans; what is more egregious, in Puerto Rico’s case, is the obviousness of the double-standard that he has applied to the island—an unincorporated U.S. territory—and the suspicion that it is racist in nature. Trump’s sign-off on his tweet denying the death toll was, “I love Puerto Rico!” That felt about as convincing as his proclamations of “I love Hispanics!” during the 2016 Presidential campaign. Indeed, the blatancy of Trump’s condescension led Ricardo Rosselló, the pro-statehood governor of Puerto Rico, to say at a press conference on Thursday, “After the storm, it is evident that the treatment that was given, say, Florida or Texas, was very different than the treatment given in Puerto Rico. We are second-class U.S. citizens. We live in a colonial territory. It is time to eliminate that, and I implore all the elected officials, particularly now in midterm elections, to have a firm stance. You’re either for colonial territories or against them. You’re either for giving equal rights to the U.S. citizens that live in Puerto Rico, or you’re against it.”

Roselló’s remarks suggest that a shift of sorts is taking place in the Puerto Rican political landscape. Until recently, the governor was criticized for maintaining a milquetoast posture toward Trump, and for upholding his claims of a low death toll. But, in May, an investigation conducted by Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health found a tally of more than four thousand hurricane-related deaths. That led Roselló to commission the George Washington University study, whose results he has accepted. He has also acknowledged that he had “made mistakes.” The Puerto Rican journalist Héctor Feliciano told me, “It’s true that the relationship with the United States is changing. It’s very rare to see annexationists”—a term for pro-statehood Puerto Ricans—“taking the same side as other Puerto Ricans in criticizing the President about an important issue.”

In the past, referenda have shown Puerto Ricans to be split roughly into three groups—the smallest being in favor of independence, the next largest in favor of the current relationship, and an apparently growing majority in favor of statehood. Wherever the debate heads next, it seems likely that judgments about leadership will be key, and that, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and the continued offensiveness of Trump’s response to the crisis, fewer Puerto Ricans will want to stick with the status quo.

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