Facing renewed criticism of his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, President Donald Trump lashed out again on Wednesday, grousing about his administration’s “unappreciated great job” on the Puerto Rico recovery – despite the remoteness of the island, poor access to electricity and the “totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan.”
“We are ready for the big one that is coming!” an exuberant Trump concluded, as a new storm spun toward the East Coast.
Story Continued Below
The president’s tweets, posted as cable news flipped almost entirely to tracking preparations in the Carolinas for Hurricane Florence, followed Trump’s claims on Monday that his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria was an “incredible unsung success” despite thousands who died — and the massive power failures that persisted for months after the storm, hobbling Puerto Rico’s already struggling economy.
From the moment Trump ascended to the nation’s highest office, the former reality TV boardroom brawler has made a habit of rewriting history, challenging the public to ignore what people plainly see with their own eyes – often on television, where Trump is watching it, too.
“If he doesn’t like the reality, he changes it,” said former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res. “He’s able to take a reality and modify it and convince himself of that modified reality.”
Over the past 20 months, Trump, who in his past life branded and sold steaks, vodka, neckties, perfume, wine, gold-leaf sconces and water, has often peddled statements that contradict his own remarks.
Trump insisted this spring that former FBI Director James Comey “was not fired because of the phony Russia investigation” even though the president told NBC News last year he was thinking about the probe when he decided to finally drop the hammer.
Trump asserted in July that the Russians “don’t want Trump” to stay in the White House, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin having said publicly he wanted Trump to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. U.S. officials have said Russia tried to sway the election in Trump’s favor.
At an August 2017 rally, Trump took the media to task for not giving him enough credit for denouncing neo-Nazis in the wake of the fatal clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year. “The words were perfect,” Trump said, papering over his initial comments that appeared to equate counter-protesters and white nationalists.
White House aides and people close to Trump have grown accustomed to the president’s frequent exaggerations and distortions, according to interviews with a half-dozen of the president’s allies.
They acknowledge privately that Trump has, in the favored phrasing of those who know him, a “complicated relationship with the truth.” White House lawyers have even cited Trump’s frequent falsehoods as a rationale for him not sitting for an in-person interview with special counsel Robert Mueller.
“If he’s got an insecurity, if there’s something that he worries about, those are often the times he’s even more adamant,” said an outside adviser to the president.
Res said Trump’s penchant for writing his own reality dates back to the 1990s, when his business empire was facing financial difficulties. “He managed to convince himself that he had nothing to do with it,” she said.
Perhaps the most illustrative version of a presidential embellishment came early in his tenure. Confronted with the fact that the crowd size at his January 2017 inauguration paled in comparison to former President Barack Obama’s, Trump flew into a rage and instructed his then-press secretary, Sean Spicer, to attack the media for reporting on the notable contrast.
“[P]hotographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall,” Spicer said in those first fateful remarks from the briefing room, the day after the inauguration.
In actuality, the president himself sought to distort the crowd size. Internal documents first obtained by The Guardian showed that Trump and Spicer called the National Park Service to complain about the crowd size photos, leaving the “impression that President Trump wanted to see pictures that appeared to depict more spectators in the crowd,” according to one National Park Service official.
Trump’s claims this week that his administration did a “great job” in Puerto Rico stand in contrast to the ongoing recovery efforts and data that show Maria’s death toll was much larger than previously reported. More than 3,000 people died from the storm, according to a recent report sponsored by the Puerto Rican government, many more than the prior official death toll that the federal government had maintained for months.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz this week, juxtaposed the 3,000 deaths with Trump’s professed success, offering a stinging rejoinder: “Can you imagine what he thinks failure looks like?”
When it comes to his response, Trump is deeply sensitive about comparisons to Hurricane Katrina – and he has never been able to let Cruz’s sharp criticism go. A Politico investigation found the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Harvey, in Houston and along the Gulf Coast, was faster and greater than its response to Maria.
Trump’s anger toward Cruz stems from his belief that she unfairly politicized the storm and helped cement the narrative that the federal response was ham-fisted from the beginning. “He genuinely, legitimately feels that was unfair,” a former Trump administration official said.
The latest storm seems to have uncorked the president’s lingering resentment.
“All he sees on cable news is reporting on how he failed in the aftermath of the hurricane,” another former White House aide told POLITICO. Of Trump’s inability to tamp down his rage, the person added: “Zero discipline.”
Trump’s latest spat, less than two months before the midterm elections, is part of a political calculation that voters will internalize his version of events and overlook what really happened. But some Republicans close to Trump acknowledge that risks alienating voters in Puerto Rico, whom Democrats are targeting ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Trump and his administration’s response to Maria left a majority of Puerto Rican respondents with a negative impression, according to a survey released Wednesday by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. Some 52 percent of respondents rated Trump’s performance as “poor,” and 28 percent called it “fair.” Only 15 percent gave him a positive rating.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois who has frequently criticized the Trump administration over its response after Hurricane Maria, said he’s planning a visit to Florida this weekend after traveling to several small towns in Pennsylvania to organize Puerto Ricans.
“Let me just say to the president, he should understand there are going to be ‘electoral consequences,’” Gutierrez said in an appearance late Tuesday on MSNBC.
“Because hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans had to flee the island, because of what this government did and how it did not intervene. They now live in Florida, they now live in Pennsylvania, and, Mr. President, you should know they are registering to vote. They are mobilized — they are organizing.”
FEMA Administrator Brock Long defended his agencies Maria recovery efforts in an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday.
“EMA put 100 percent into Puerto Rico, and these people back here are incredibly dedicated around the clock and stepped on all of the time,” he said. “And the bottom line is that I know and they know that we kept Puerto Rico from total collapse as a result of Maria.”
Others who worked on the response to Maria disagreed, adding that they were frustrated but not shocked by Trump’s insistence that the federal government did a stellar job.
“I was not surprised,” said Kenneth McClintock, a former secretary of state of Puerto Rico. “I was not insulted. If anything, I was sorry for the nation — that the nation has to put up with those attitudes.”
McClintock blamed the federal government, including FEMA, for “significant mistakes” and a lack of urgency in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and he worried Trump’s attitude will prevent agencies from conducting a serious stock-taking of the flawed federal response.
“The fact that it took [Trump] 13 days to come is an example of how we’re not at the top of the list and we’re not at the forefront of the agenda for this White House and for the agencies that had to wait for White House decisions,” he said, referring to the nearly two-week gap between the hurricane decimating Puerto Rico and Trump’s visit to the island.
Already, McClintock said, the federal response to Hurricane Florence appears more robust.
The president echoed that sentiment. Trump said on Tuesday that the administration was “totally prepared” for the storm, releasing a video online and warning his Twitter followers to be attentive to local authorities, adding that with “Mother Nature, you never know. But we know.”
Other presidents paid dearly with their reputations for launching premature victory celebrations, including George W. Bush in 2003, for standing in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner on an aircraft carrier to announce the end to major combat in Iraq. Thousands more died in that war.