Will Trump's mismanagement of Puerto Rico have political consequences?

by Rachel Morris / 10 October, 2017
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President Donald Trump arrives in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Photo/Getty Images

After Puerto Rico, the 45th President has nuked the assumption that when you screw up, you pay the price.

It’s often said that the turning point for George W Bush, the moment when his Administration’s fecklessness finally caught up with him and public opinion truly began to curdle, was after Hurricane Katrina hit.

By that point in 2005, his Administration had weathered plenty of controversies and accusations of mismanagement, not least in Iraq. But the images of American citizens enduring appalling conditions in the Louisiana Superdome or painting desperate pleas for rescue on their roofs shocked the country. So did the botched emergency response and Bush’s decision to view the devastation in New Orleans through the window of Air Force One. He never recovered from it.

But that was in the quaint era when so-called political gravity meant actions had consequences: politicians who screwed up badly enough would eventually pay the price.

But Donald J Trump – the man who was caught on tape boasting of sexually assaulting women one month before being elected president – has nuked that assumption so many times that it’s become impossible to speculate on the consequences of anything.

By any standard, the unfolding catastrophe in Puerto Rico should be Trump’s Katrina. Since it was hit by Hurricane Maria on September 20, the small US territory has been in a state of crisis, without safe drinking water or electricity. Cholera is on the rise and thousands of residents are still unaccounted for.

Trump spent the first weekend after the storm rage-tweeting at football players for kneeling during the pre-game national anthem. He didn’t hold one meeting about the disaster response – in fact, it took him five days to publicly acknowledge the situation.

Since then, he has alternated between blaming Puerto Ricans for wanting “everything to be done for them” and claiming that it is too difficult for the most powerful military nation in history to mount a rescue effort because Puerto Rico is an island surrounded by “big water, ocean water”. It took him a week to waive a restriction that was preventing boats from delivering aid to the island, explaining that the waiver was opposed by “a lot of people that work in the shipping industry”.

As conditions on the island worsened, Trump spent the next weekend playing golf, though he did dedicate the trophy to hurricane victims.

In a sense, the 45th President has created his own law of physics: if you make multiple messes, they don’t magnify each other; they cancel themselves out. After Katrina hit New Orleans, it was on television 24/7. You couldn’t look away from scenes of suffering so extreme that it was hard to believe they were occurring in the richest nation on Earth.

One reason Americans are not more horrified by Puerto Rico’s plight is that the news has been dominated by the wave of protests by football players (fuelled by Trump’s tweetstorms) and escalating tensions with North Korea (ditto). And that was before a man named Stephen Paddock opened fire on hundreds of people in Las Vegas.

All of this explains why it felt so strange when Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price, resigned last week. He had spent more than US$1 million in public money using private and military jets for official business (most cabinet secretaries fly commercial and sit in economy).

A resignation was expected. But Trump’s Treasury Secretary requested a $25,000-an-hour government jet to use for his honeymoon, and the Trumps have already exhausted the Secret Service’s annual budget with trips to his various properties and other private business, so Price’s departure was hardly a given. Still, the idea – even if it was only momentary – that gravity might still exist was extremely comforting.

New Zealander Rachel Morris is executive editor of Huffington Post Highline.

This article was first published in the October 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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