Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 | 2 a.m.
In the frustrated anguish of Puerto Rico, we can see the real-world consequences of Donald Trump’s flagrant incompetence.
A little more than eight months ago, the United States inaugurated one of its worst people as president, a nasty showbiz huckster whose own staffers speak of him as if he were a malevolent toddler. Yet the country has held up pretty well, considering.
Yes, there were emboldened Nazis marching in the streets, and crucial intelligence on the Islamic State casually passed to the Russians. Striving young immigrants who had been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program have seen their lives upended and trans people have been barred from enlisting in the military.
Yet most of the institutions of American governance continued to function. The stock market plunged on the night of Trump’s election, but then it turned around and started soaring. The economic recovery that began under Barack Obama continued. It was hard to see any immediate material effect from the Trump White House’s chaos and melodrama. Until now.
Reports from post-hurricane Puerto Rico tell of U.S. citizens experiencing a level of humanitarian desperation usually seen only in the poorest of countries. As of last Saturday, according to the Defense Department, only 45 percent of customers on the island had access to drinking water. People are frantically seeking food and medical supplies, and there’s not enough diesel to deliver much of the aid that has reached San Juan.
While that city’s mayor pleaded with the world for help, the president of the United States tweeted racially inflected insults at her and her people from his golf club. He implied they are lazy and “want everything to be done for them” rather than helping themselves.
Under any president, Hurricane Maria would have been disastrous, but it seems clear that Trump’s inattention made the fallout worse. As the Washington Post reported, there were four days after the storm hit when Trump appeared disengaged from the burgeoning emergency. Instead of mobilizing the government on Puerto Rico’s behalf, he spent much of his time picking fights with NFL athletes. After visiting Puerto Rico with CNN, Russel L. Honoré, a retired Army lieutenant general who led the military response to Hurricane Katrina, told me that because of the administration’s sluggishness, “we lost about a good six or seven days.”
It took Trump eight days after the storm to suspend the Jones Act — a World War I-era law mandating that all shipping between American ports be done via ships primarily owned and crewed by Americans. Worse, he waived it for only 10 days. That, says Honoré, is further hindering the recovery: “We’ve got to get rid of that dumb-ass Jones Act that benefits shipping tycoons in New York and Miami,” while driving up costs for Puerto Ricans.
According to The Post, it was only when Trump started seeing Puerto Rico coverage on cable television that a sense of urgency kicked in. Even then, he was mostly concerned with how the story reflected on him. In a series of tweets Sunday, he claimed his administration has done “a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico,” and that only “Fake News or politically motivated ingrates” fail to recognize its “amazing work.”
Even after the emergency response has been set in motion, rebuilding Puerto Rico will require presidential leadership. “Where the president really matters now is marshaling more appropriations from Congress and sustaining the efforts of the military for as long as it takes,” said Phillip Carter, a former Obama Pentagon official who now directs the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. Carter told me that a normal president would also try to coordinate a private sector response: “You could imagine President Bush or President Obama or President Clinton doing that.”
It’s hard to imagine such leadership from Trump, particularly after the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, which will probably, for obvious reasons, monopolize cable television. If Trump fails, as he almost always does, to rise to the occasion, a great many Americans will see their lives blighted, perhaps permanently. Honoré said the destruction in Puerto Rico is so extensive that he thinks the government should be evacuating people to the mainland. “Let’s get kids who won’t be able to go to school for six months and get them to family and friends,” he said.
For months now, observers have been noting that all the crises in the Trump White House have been self-generated, but that eventually the president would be tested by external events. Now a test has come, and he has performed about as badly as his worst critics could have feared. Hurricane season isn’t even over, and more catastrophes are surely on the way.
Maria should be a lesson: We need a working executive branch. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services both lack permanent leadership. The State Department has been hollowed out, and Trump undercuts his own secretary of state while threatening war with North Korea. America has largely survived eight months of Trump. That’s no guarantee we’ll survive eight months more.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.