President Trump has been widely condemned for his tweets last week claiming the death toll figures in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria were inflated by Democrats to make him look bad. But give him some credit: At least he didn’t blame the storm on the media, James Comey or Jeff Sessions.
3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
….GWU Research to tell them how many people had died in Puerto Rico (how would they not know this?). This method was never done with previous hurricanes because other jurisdictions know how many people were killed. FIFTY TIMES LAST ORIGINAL NUMBER – NO WAY!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2018
…..This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
Trump’s comments were wildly inaccurate and petty — deplorable, you could say — but the long tradition of storms bringing out the worst in American public discourse has numerous prior examples. Some evangelists seize on natural disasters — or even man-made ones, like 9/11 — to illustrate God’s punishment on people they disagree with. Pat Robertson infamously claimed that the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment on the nation for “a pact to the Devil” in exchange for their independence from France. That occurred in 1804, so none of the 160,000 people who died in the quake and its aftermath could have been implicated in the notorious deal, but God, as the Bible makes clear, believes in collective justice, and has a long memory.
Franklin Graham was one of a large number of preachers who blamed the destruction of much of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina on the promiscuity and “perversion” (i.e., homosexuality) of that city’s inhabitants: “This is one wicked city, OK? It’s known for Mardi Gras, for Satan worship. It’s known for sex perversion. It’s known for every type of drugs and alcohol and the orgies. … There’s been a black spiritual cloud over New Orleans for years. They believe God is going to use that storm to bring revival.”
Honorable mention for “worst use of weather to make a political point” goes to Trayon White, a member of the Washington, D.C., city council, for his response to an unexpected snowfall earlier this year. His reaction was to blame it on the Jews: “Y’all better pay attention to this climate control, man, this climate manipulation,” White said in a video posted to Facebook. “That’s a model based off the Rothschilds, controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful.” Bonus points for the sheer ignorance in believing that bankers can manipulate the weather, but at least no one died in the epic flurries. (White later apologized.)
Trump at least didn’t claim Democrats actually caused the deaths in Puerto Rico, only that they exaggerated the number to attack him over what many islanders saw as an inadequate federal response. For his part, Trump described his administration’s performance as “an incredible, unsung success.” As has been well documented, it took an excruciatingly long time to clear roads and restore power and phone service to much of the island, circumstances that led researchers commissioned by the governor to calculate that “excess deaths” from the storm over the succeeding months amounted to nearly 3,000. The study did not investigate individual cases or enumerate specific causes of death, but it identified vulnerable populations as “older adults; individuals with chronic medical conditions; patients requiring ongoing and specialized treatment; and patients with required prescription medications, including controlled substances.” Imagine someone with, for instance, heart failure, stuck in an isolated town without power, unable to call for an ambulance. Brock Long, Trump’s FEMA chief, added his own gloss to this scenario, pointing out with characteristic Trumpian sensitivity that in the aftermath of disasters “spousal abuse goes through the roof.” You can’t blame the government for that.
So it’s fair to describe Trump’s reaction as delusional, self-aggrandizing and disrespectful both to the families of the victims and the professionalism of the researchers at George Washington University who conducted the study. It reflects his implacable insistence that anything he does is an “incredible” or “unbelievable” success, adjectives that perhaps reveal more than he intends. And the whole sorry spectacle is unnecessary, except to feed his need for approval. Of course Democrats were quick to point a finger at Trump for the way the hurricane played out — that’s politics. During the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014, even before anyone in America had contracted the disease, Trump was sending out increasingly hysterical tweets, eventually more than 100, warning that President Obama’s failure to suspend all travel from Africa would lead to massive carnage, a death toll that eventually reached two. As Trump put it, about a physician who returned to the U.S. from treating Ebola victims: “If this doctor, who so recklessly flew into New York from West Africa, has Ebola, then Obama should apologize to the American people & resign!”
Well, he said it.
If he wanted to say something about Puerto Rico, Trump could have deplored the tragic loss of life despite FEMA’s best efforts, said something bland about lessons learned, and moved on. A sixth-grader could have written that for him. Except, of course, for his inability even to feign modesty, a tendency that was fostered by his early career as a developer in New York City. You don’t sell a $4 million apartment by advertising it as “pretty good, considering what we had to go through to get it built.” It’s the world’s most luxurious building with the most incredible views and unbelievable amenities, and anyone who says otherwise is an enemy who must be discredited.
The backdrop to all this, of course, was Hurricane Florence, which as of Tuesday afternoon was directly responsible for at least 34 deaths, although it spared Robertson’s broadcasting and education empire in Virginia, for which Robertson took credit:
“We’ve seen many, many, many prayers being answered,” Robertson said. “We prayed together in our staff a few days ago and asked the Lord to move that hurricane’s course away from this area and from what we gather right now, the storm track has shifted south of this area and we no longer are under the threat of a serious hurricane here. … For that, I’m grateful.”
Hopefully the infrastructure in North Carolina will prove more resilient than Puerto Rico’s, and there won’t be too many more deaths in the months ahead. You’d think hurricanes would be one subject that is immune to partisan bickering — after all, there’s no pro-disaster constituency, outside the conspiracy theories about international bankers White, the D.C. councilman, was incoherently referencing. Or Rush Limbaugh’s paranoid musing that “the left” is hyping the danger of hurricanes to promote its climate-change agenda. Or CNN, which according to a tweet from Donald Trump Jr., staged a photo of Anderson Cooper in waist-deep water during the deluge from Florence, to dramatize the flooding and make his father look bad.
Cooper really was standing in water up to his waist. And the picture was from a different hurricane, in another state, 10 years ago.
So maybe we can come together on a deal here: If the right will stop blaming hurricanes on gays, the left will stop blaming them on Trump.
Actually, never mind. As scientists increasingly believe that climate change is making tropical storms more powerful, the conclusion is inevitable: They really are his fault.
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