White House

Trump's Puerto Rico Tweets Are Part of the Same Old War

The president's latest attacks on the media and his critics can't hide his administration's failures.

On the defensive.

Photographer: Shawn Thew/Pool

President Donald Trump rocketed across the Twitterverse this weekend taking on those who have given him poor reviews for his response to the humanitarian crisis in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Trump Says Puerto Rico Threw Budget 'Out of Whack'

On Saturday, some of this was directed at the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has been critical of Trump’s response to the calamity:

Some of it was directed at Puerto Ricans themselves, whom the president felt were too eager for handouts:

 

And the president aimed salvos at the news media:

Trump awoke on Sunday still on a war footing, seemingly unaware of some of the strategic, long-term political costs he may have incurred by engaging in risky, multi-front battles over his performance during the relief effort. He also took another moment to slap around the media:

Trump’s media slurs are hardly the most important facet of the ongoing tragedy in Puerto Rico. Unlike some other Trump targets, the media can give as good as it gets. And pouncing on the media makes sense for Trump, given how unpopular the media is at large and how especially loathed it is among the president’s political base.

But “POTUS vs. the media” is still of note because of the fear that animates the president’s attacks. He isn’t slagging the media merely to score political points. Trump is waging a war on the press because of the role it plays in recording, sometimes imperfectly, what occurs in real time all around us and during harrowing events, such as those in Puerto Rico. The president is waging a war on the media as part of his war on the public’s collective memory.

By sowing doubts about the truth of what’s occurring, Trump hopes to insulate his own reputation as the White House’s response to the crisis continues to be assessed by the public, both political parties and, of course, Puerto Ricans themselves.

There are also two pillars of the U.S. response to the crisis that Trump is intentionally conflating in order to distract: the delivery of supplies and services needed to help Puerto Rico recover, and his own leadership over the past several days.

From a boots-on-the-ground perspective, the federal response to the two hurricanes that swept across the Caribbean and battered Texas and Florida before Hurricane Maria struck was ambitious and well-planned. Tens of thousands of federal personnel were deployed (about 31,000 people for Hurricane Harvey and more than 40,000 for Hurricane Irma), along with bounteous supplies of food and water.

The response to Hurricane Maria, the third major hurricane in a month to make landfall in the U.S. and upend lives, has been more muted -- about 10,000 federal personnel are currently in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Army general coordinating the military response said on Friday that he needs more personnel than that, along with more supplies. Significant amounts of food, water and medical supplies have arrived, but because of logistical challenges, they’ve been piling up on San Juan’s docks instead of reaching the island’s interior. The U.S. military’s response has also been much less aggressive than the bravura relief performance it offered in 2010 in Haiti after earthquakes rocked that country.

According to federal data, as of Saturday evening most of Puerto Rico's 3.4 million people were still contending with almost no electricity, water and fuel shortages, limited access to medical supplies, almost nonexistent mobile-phone service, and inaccessible roads. Eleven days have passed since Hurricane Maria hit the island, and some reporters there say that residents and the military alike want more from the White House: 

But the military and other federal personnel are now working hard in Puerto Rico, they did try to put help in place before the storm hit, and soldiers interviewed in recent days appear to have been available to the media and transparent about discussing the relief effort. Whatever mistakes have been made along the way will presumably be addressed.

Trump has used his Twitter feed to align himself with the military and other federal personnel in Puerto Rico:

Criticisms about the U.S. response to the crisis in Puerto Rico haven’t only been about first responders (or "first R's") or the scale and delivery of federal aid to the island, however. They have also been rooted in deep dissatisfaction and distaste for the president’s leadership, which he surely knows and is why he wants to rally around the first responders.

For several days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Trump had nothing to say about it. Instead, he went overboard inveighing against professional athletes for speaking their minds about racial injustice in the U.S. Once he weighed in on Puerto Rico, he emphasized the island’s financial problems rather than offering a detailed relief plan. He took to the airwaves, in full propaganda mode, to gush about the “incredible job” he was doing in Puerto Rico. And then, on Saturday, while weekending in Bedminster, N.J., he took shots at Cruz, who, 1,600 miles away, had been wading chest-deep in water trying to bring help and attention to the residents of her city. A Bloomberg View editorial pointed out a common feature of these responses from the president: He doesn't seem to understand that Puerto Ricans are American citizens (which was also a cue for Alec Baldwin on "Saturday Night Live").

None of this amounts to graceful, informed, exemplary leadership. As Martin Dempsey, a retired U.S. Army general and former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out on his Twitter feed on Sunday: “Great leaders are motivated by results not reviews, accomplishments not accolades, humility not hubris.”

When Trump launched his recent inflammatory attack on professional athletes, he tried to pivot afterward by positioning the dustup as something about patriotism and honoring the flag rather than what it really was: a debate about race relations and civil rights in the U.S.

Pushed back on his heels by criticism about how quickly he recognized and called attention to the crisis in Puerto Rico, Trump is trying to hide by reshaping any criticism as an attack on first responders and the military. That’s simply not the totality of what’s in play, and it explains the White House’s repeated attacks on the truth. Trump’s leadership, skills and values are being questioned, by the media and others, and the president doth protest too much.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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