Trump Failed the Americans of Puerto Rico
The death toll is now estimated at 4,645, and the president’s lack of engagement is largely to blame.
The death toll from Hurricane Maria appears to have been 4,645, despite the official count of 64. That’s 4,645 citizens of the U.S. It’s a disgrace.
To be sure, the Trump administration isn’t entirely responsible for this disaster. It’s going to be difficult, perhaps impossible, to assess how much of it had to do with the federal government’s indifference and ineffectiveness; how much was the fault of current Puerto Rican government officials; and how much was the effects of long-term Puerto Rican poverty and structural conditions. And, in any case, assistance and recovery for the Caribbean island was going to be difficult, and the storm would have been devastating under the best of circumstances.
Even so, President Donald Trump’s reaction was awful. He picked fights with local government, and during his visit to the island he focused far more on congratulating himself than on doing something worth bragging about.
Worse, he didn’t follow up. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands simply disappeared from his public statements, and there’s no reporting to indicate that anything was different behind closed doors. There’s no record of FEMA officials or anyone else being summoned to the White House and urged to do more. No evidence of high-level White House coordination of the efforts, such as they were, from the various agencies involved. In fact, the best reporting on the government response, from Politico’s Danny Vinik, shows that it was botched from the get-go, with the government going all out to assist Houston but not Puerto Rico.
Experts agree. Writing at the Monkey Cage back in December, Jeremy Konyndyk pointed out both the inherent difficulties of the situation and the limited effectiveness of business as usual, and concluded:
With FEMA understandably overmatched by this fall’s series of megastorms and faced with a uniquely challenging context in Puerto Rico, the Trump administration could have gotten creative: deploying its own international responders at scale, or seeking help from international partners. Inexplicably, it did neither. And the response suffered as a result.
Trump’s failure to act was extremely important because without presidential involvement, executive branch departments and agencies are not likely to mobilize, even though many of the the people involved are professionals, and most of them care deeply about doing their jobs well.
We’ve seen in other circumstances the effects on agencies when they know they have to answer to the president. If the secretary of Homeland Security knows she will have to make a daily report to the president on what her department did that day about an acute problem, she’ll make sure she has an answer — and that’s exactly when bureaucrats find creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. On the other hand, when the president has already declared mission accomplished and moved on, then even an awful continuing situation slides down the list of priorities.
That’s especially true for urgent needs for the people of Puerto Rico who do not have their own members of Congress to put pressure on those agencies. If the impetus doesn’t come from the president, nothing’s going to happen. The best long-term solution for Puerto Rico probably is statehood, but that’s not going to help the island right now, although it would be a fitting consequence of the failure to help these citizens when they needed it the most.
For some Americans, Trump’s constant stream of invective and controversy is simply another form of entertaining reality television. It isn’t. Trump isn’t a reality star anymore; he’s an elected official, with real and important responsibilities that he shirks. What he does or doesn’t do has huge practical consequences for all Americans. Sometimes those consequences are the difference between life and death.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at firstname.lastname@example.org