Trump's hurricane response delusion

Consistent with his endless self-praise for his performance in office, President Donald Trump chose the arrival of Hurricane Florence as the occasion to give himself "an A-plus" in last year's Hurricane Maria assault on Puerto Rico.

He has challenged the island government's assessment that nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died as a result of Maria, which left the territory without power and water for months, insisting no more than 18 had perished at the time he visited the devastation about a year ago.


Calling that widely condemned response "an incredible unsung success," the president tweeted that "the Democrats" inflated the death toll "in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico."

The much larger number comes from a George Washington University study commissioned by the local government under San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. Gov. Ricardo Rossello has responded that "the people of Puerto Rico don't deserve to have their pain questioned" by Mr. Trump, calling on him to order all federal agencies "to keep working" to finish the recovery.


A White House spokesman offers that "President Trump was responding to the liberal media and the San Juan mayor who, sadly, have tried to exploit the devastation by pushing out a constant stream of misinformation and false accusations."

But one result of the president's ill-timed boast of his much-publicized post-hurricane visit to the stricken island has been the resurrection of television clips in which Mr. Trump, as if shooting baskets in a schoolyard playground, flipped rolls of paper towels to Puerto Ricans as his contribution to the clean-up.

Several Democratic members of Congress from Florida as well as House Speaker Paul Ryan have challenged Mr. Trump's accusation of partisan motivation in assessing the Puerto Rico toll and the federal response. Mr. Ryan has said: "I have no reason to dispute those numbers. These are just the facts of what happens when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated place like an island."

The superstorm’s aftermath forced her to the mainland and New York to seek medical treatment. But the federal housing vouchers that kept her and her children off the street expired last week, and now Jenyffer Ortiz — mother, grandmother, survivor, diabetic — finds herself homeless.

As Hurricane Florence approached North Carolina on Wednesday, the president in the Rose Garden defended his track record on responding to such natural disasters: "We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!"

The matter of Mr. Trump's veracity arrives again at the heart of his running fight with the American news media in which he attacks White House and other reporters, the New York Times and liberal-leaning television outlets like CNN and MSNBC as peddlers of "fake news."

Two inside-the-White House accounts, one by Washington Post investigative reporter and author Bob Woodward and the other an anonymous op-ed in the Times by a source said to be a senior Trump administration official, have dominated the daily news cycle in print and on the Internet.

FEMA administrator Brock Long defended President Trump's recent statements about Puerto Rico on Sunday, claiming the numbers relating to the death toll from Hurricane Maria have been "all over the place."

As in so many other occasions in the first year and a half of his presidency, Mr. Trump has been accused of compiling a scorecard of thousands of outright lies and misrepresentations as reviewed and calculated by reputable news organization fact-checkers.

It all depends, obviously, on whom and what readers and viewers choose to believe. Polls indicate a clear majority of responding Americans now accept the evidence that Donald Trump has little respect for the truth if it clashes with his view of the world and his own dominant role in it.

At the same time, a considerable if slowly shrinking minority continues to accept what he says, or finds it irrelevant to their support of the man or his agenda promising to "make America great again."

Hence the development of the November congressional elections as a critical litmus test of where Donald Trump really stands with the voters, whether they really believe him or indeed really care at this point — a sorry state in a self-governing democracy

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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