On Wednesday, five days after the official start of hurricane season in the Atlantic, Donald Trump attended what was supposed to be a meeting on storm preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters. Most of the meeting was closed to the media, but The Washington Post obtained a recording.
According to The Post, Trump spoke about the coming North Korea summit meeting, polling on the midterms, the Taiwanese company Foxconn, his love of coal and his administration’s “great” popularity. He claimed that the government saved $1.6 billion on Air Force One after he got involved in negotiations. The Post reported, “Military officials have not been able to explain where Trump got such a figure.”
One subject Trump did not get around to, according to The Post, were the victims of Hurricane Maria, even though Puerto Ricans are facing a new hurricane season well before they’ve recovered from the last one. He apparently hardly spoke about Puerto Rico at all, though he did mention that its power company was “in bankruptcy prior to the hurricane,” as if that exonerates his administration’s performance in the territory.
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Last week, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study, led by researchers from Harvard, which estimated that the death toll from Hurricane Maria was around 4,600. Because hard data had been difficult to come by, the researchers arrived at that number by extrapolating from the results of a survey of thousands of Puerto Rican households about whether they had lost someone. It’s not exact, and other studies have calculated a death toll closer to 1,000.
Whether the real death toll is 1,000, 4,600, or more, it took Trump less than a year in office to stumble into his own version of Katrina, the deadly Gulf Coast hurricane whose botched response came to symbolize George W. Bush’s incompetence.
There are lots of reasons that Hurricane Maria hasn’t had the same political impact as Katrina – Puerto Rico is far away from the mainland, its residents can’t vote in federal elections, and the punishing churn of today’s news cycle makes it hard to focus on a single catastrophe for too long. But Trump’s failure in Puerto Rico is representative of his presidency, and it is a portent.
Many Americans – maybe most Americans – have yet to experience the material consequences of having an unfit president. Trump inherited a growing economy, and it got a short-term boost thanks to tax cuts whose ultimate cost won’t be felt for some time. The majority of the crises Trump has faced have been self-inflicted. America’s reputation is collapsing abroad, but that doesn’t yet affect most Americans directly. The country is just starting to feel the effects of Trump’s trade skirmishes. The consequences of his assault on environmental protections have been serious but diffuse. The people whose families are being ripped apart by his immigration policies are largely noncitizens who cannot vote.
We’ve been at once lucky and unlucky. It’s a blessing that much of the country has escaped physical disaster, but eventually the bill for having a cruel, scatterbrained demagogue in the White House will come due. The longer it takes, the more he’ll be able to consolidate power and exploit his position for private gain. America has become like one of Trump’s casinos, surface glitz hiding corruption and rot that Trump will ultimately make others pay for.
Hurricane Maria has been the one real test of presidential leadership Trump has faced. We can see the results. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, Trump was busy tweeting insults from his New Jersey golf club and campaigning in a special election in Alabama. When he did engage, he praised his administration’s response and complained that Puerto Ricans weren’t doing enough to help themselves.
Experts acknowledge that Hurricane Maria would have challenged any president. “The basic model for a FEMA response is that the state and local authorities lead, and FEMA comes in to support their recovery effort,” Jeremy Konyndyk, who headed U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance under Barack Obama, told me. In Puerto Rico, where the whole island had been devastated, that was impossible.
But it’s precisely because FEMA isn’t set up to handle situations like Puerto Rico that we needed a capable president. “When a government agency needs to do something it is not designed to do, it takes a lot of very disciplined, rigorous White House leadership” to make it happen, Konyndyk said.
As an example, he mentions the Obama administration’s successful response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Neither USAID, the Centers for Disease Control, nor the military was equipped to address it alone. “It’s very easy in that instance for a government agency to just default to doing things the normal way,” Konyndyk said. In such circumstances, someone with a big picture view needs to figure out innovative ways to marshal America’s resources.
Trump will never be that someone. And Hurricane Maria is highly unlikely to be the last grave emergency to happen on his watch. Experts are predicting another bad hurricane season this year, though not as terrible as 2017. As Konyndyk points out, every president since Ronald Reagan has had to deal with some sort of novel disease outbreak, including HIV, SARS and avian flu. Other, unforeseen calamities will take us by surprise. And we have a president who cannot sit through a briefing or do serious preparation of any kind, who has hollowed out the government and filled key posts with lackeys and grifters.
Puerto Ricans have been the first U.S. citizens to really feel what it means to have a president who is so wildly unable to fulfill his responsibilities. It’s hard to imagine they’ll be the last.