With rain inundating the mid-Atlantic states and a hurricane barreling down on the Carolinas, President Donald Trump took the occasion to pat himself on the back for his handling of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico last year. It was an "underappreciated great job," he said in an Oval Office interview, giving himself an A+ for the "incredible, unsung success." Not content with bragging about an event that cost an estimated 3,000 lives, the president then took to Twitter to question the death toll, blaming Democrats for inflating the numbers: "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!"
Those with memories longer than the president's last tweet may remember that he claimed Maria was nowhere near a "real catastrophe like Katrina," which inundated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. Sitting next to Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello two weeks after Maria hit, Trump said only 16 people had died. He might be forgiven for not having accurate information at the time — Puerto Rican officials were loath to admit they had no handle on how many people had died as a direct result of the storm or its aftermath, which cut off whole communities from emergency health care, clean water and electricity. But there is little excuse today for the president's willful ignorance.
Critics pilloried President George W. Bush in 2005 for his response to Katrina — and not without some cause. Bush was slow to respond personally to the crisis, deploying bureaucrats to do the job only a president can do: engage with the people and give solace to the afflicted. Bush went about his schedule as planned, even as the storm approached, and seemed disengaged as New Orleans flooded. Afterward, Bush's approval ratings slumped dramatically, falling to 41 percent, and never fully recovered.
Trump seems to be learning one lesson from Bush's failure: grab attention. Trump has been on television and on Twitter. He's stayed back at the White House rather than heading out to one of his properties for the weekend, as he usually does. But he's also intent on taking credit before he's earned the right to do so.
We all pray that Hurricane Florence will not wreak devastation as it hits landfall. And we hope that the administration will have teams in place moving quickly to restore power, clear debris and provide shelter where needed. But we don't need a president who views human disaster as an opportunity to boost his approval ratings, which are already below 40 percent. And we certainly don't need one who blames past catastrophes on politics or pretends they were "successes."
We may never know exactly how many people died last year as a result of Hurricane Maria, but several studies that examined the death rates in the weeks and months following the storm suggest the number was in the thousands, not the double digits the president asserted at the time and still seems to believe. We also know that many parts of the island are still without reliable electricity or clean water, that homes have not been rebuilt, that thousands left the island for the mainland because they saw no sign that Puerto Rico would return to its former state anytime soon.
Most importantly, however, we know — or should know — that those Puerto Ricans who suffered and suffer still are Americans. They are Americans every bit as much as the residents of Houston, also hit by a hurricane in the same season last year, and every bit as much as the residents of the states facing Hurricane Florence right now. The president of the United States should be president of all its people, those who voted for him and those who didn't. Hurricanes don't see partisan differences. They rip apart communities and destroy lives. Our leaders should do their best to protect all of us, and even when they can't, to have humility in the face of the formidable power of nature.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.