Oct. 01

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It's Trump vs. Puerto Rico

Variations on that basic headline have been appropriate many times since Donald Trump was inaugurated just nine months ago. In his victory speech on election night, he promised to be a uniter, declaring, "I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all the citizens and this is important to me." However, as a candidate, he was a divider, and that habit has carried over into his presidency. Whether it's the NFL, or Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama, or the FBI, or the Democrats, or Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), or Kim Jong-un, or the "fake news," or Muslims, or any of a hundred other bugaboos, Trump likes to go on the attack. He does it when he feels cornered, when he needs to rally the base, or when he's in a bad mood. These are all circumstances that come up quite a lot.

There is little question that Trump's response to the crisis in Puerto Rico has been sluggish, particularly compared to his responses to hurricane-induced damage in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. The President has yet to tour the island, something that doesn't really matter much in a practical sense, but it's important symbolically. Aid has been slow in arriving, and has yet to reach anything close to adequate levels. Even the general in charge of the relief expedition says as much. Some of the assistance that has been sent was not terribly useful; for example, dispatching the hospital ship USNS Comfort was a nice gesture, but Puerto Rico's problem is not a lack of hospital beds or medical care.

Why has the Trump administration responded so slowly? Critics suggest that he is not terribly motivated to help a people who have no votes for president, and who are not white. Many of those who defend him blame bureaucratic obstacles, most obviously the Jones Act, a protectionist bill adopted almost 100 years ago that requires all commerce between U.S. states and territories to be conducted on American-built and American-owned ships. There's something to this argument, but it is also the case that Trump waived the Jones Act promptly when Texas and Florida got hit, but only did so slowly and reluctantly for Puerto Rico. Trump has offered up his own explanation, namely that, "This is an island, surround by water. Big water. Ocean water." Needless to say, Twitter has had a field day with this little geography lesson.

It is evident, even this early in this term, that Trump spends much of his time in a bubble consisting of his close family, his most loyal staffers, and friendly news media like Fox News. This can happen to presidents, particularly those with fragile egos (LBJ is the clearest example besides Trump). As a consequence of the bubble, Trump was exposed to virtually no criticism of his Puerto Rico-related actions for several days, and he even got some flattering praise for his handling of the situation. Most obviously, Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, had several positive things to say, like, "We need to do a lot more in order for us to get out of the emergency. But the other thing that's also true is that the administration has answered and has complied with our petitions in an expedited manner." Not exactly a rousing endorsement, but not negative either. The extent to which it's genuine, or a product of the Governor's center-right politics, or a little bit of kissing up to the guy who's controlling the purse strings is open to debate.

As things have gotten worse and worse, however—water and food are running out, crime is up, epidemics of disease are feared—the criticism of Trump has gotten louder, and the chances that some of it would reach the President's ears increased dramatically. It was San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz who finally burst the bubble, with this tearful statement to the press on Friday:

We are dying here. I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles. So, mayday, we are in trouble. Mr Trump, I am begging you to take charge and save lives. After all, that is one of the founding principles of the United States of America. If not, the world will see how we are treated not as second-class citizens but as animals that can be disposed of. Enough is enough.

As far as criticism goes, this is fairly mild. But it definitely is critical.

Trump does not like criticism from anyone. Past responses suggest he is particularly unhappy if the criticism comes from: (1) a woman, or (2) a person of color, and Cruz is both. And so, since that Friday-morning press conference, the President has been on the warpath. He's been critical of Puerto Rico in general, making snide references to the island's indebtedness, and suggesting that they may have to pay back the cost of hurricane relief. He's made no such suggestions about Texas or Florida or Louisiana repaying their relief bills. On Saturday, Trump took to Twitter to renew his criticisms of the island in general, and to slam Cruz in particular:

The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017

...Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017

...want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017

And later in the day:

Despite the Fake News Media in conjunction with the Dems, an amazing job is being done in Puerto Rico. Great people!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017

Results of recovery efforts will speak much louder than complaints by San Juan Mayor. Doing everything we can to help great people of PR!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017

In other words, if you have heard anything negative about Trump and Puerto Rico, it's the fault of the media, and the Democratic Party, and their stooge Carmen Yulín Cruz. There is zero chance that the President's response has been anything but perfect.

Naturally, the response to Trump's tweetstorm (actually, tweetstorms) has been loud and angry. Cruz herself said, "He is looking for excuses for things not going well. I have no time for small politics or for comments that do not add to the situation here." Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, tweeted:

You're going straight to hell, @realDonaldTrump.
No long lines for you.
Someone will say, "Right this way, sir."
They'll clear a path. https://t.co/xXfJH0KJmw

— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) September 30, 2017

Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL), who was born in Puerto Rico, said "I think it isn't a good job; it's a disgraceful job. The United States of America is the most powerful, wealthiest country in the world, and this is not a response that's demonstrative of our power and our wealth." And those don't even include the responses that can't be printed in a family blog. Meanwhile, Trump managed to have all of this unfold just as Saturday Night Live was premiering its 43rd season. Their cold opening saw Alec Baldwin return as Trump, skewering the President's handling of the situation.

Even if we concede that Trump cares only about his base, and that his antagonistic approach to, well...everything is not just a product of his personality but is also a political strategy, his approach to Puerto Rico has been disastrous. In the short-term, he has taken a story that was simmering on the back burner and made it front-page news. Further, as we and others have pointed out, his actions could lead many Puerto Ricans to decamp for Florida, and could also invigorate the Puerto Ricans who already live in the Sunshine State. Trump won there by a razor-thin margin (100,000 votes, or about 1.1% of the total), and cannot afford any slippage in 2020.

More broadly, Trump has—thus far—been a teflon president with his base. Nothing he does, no matter how outrageous it is to the other 65% or so of the U.S. population, does not seem to faze the 35% who love him. But this situation could be different. Everyone recalls, of course, that the fatal blow to George W. Bush's presidency was his apparently half-hearted response to Hurricane Katrina. Here, we not only have a response that appears half-hearted, we have a President who is actively attacking those who are suffering. Maybe that won't matter to the base, but Trump is certainly playing with fire here. Even if Trump thinks he's doing a great job (likely), and even if he actually is doing a great job (dubious), what really matters here are appearances. The optics are already really bad, especially since it turns out that during the crucial first days after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico, Trump was busy playing golf. If things degrade further on the island, and news coverage is filled with pictures of dead or dying people, devastated towns, etc., Trump could be hurt very, very badly, even with the base. (Z)

Trump Has Bad Week; Plans Distraction

Whether he admits it or not, Donald Trump has had an awful week. There have been so many disasters that it's hard to recall them all. As a reminder, here is a non-exhaustive list of the 10 worst, in rough chronological order:

  1. War of words with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors
  2. Squabble with Kim Jong-un
  3. NFL demonstrations against Trump
  4. HHS Secretary Tom Price scandal breaks
  5. Obamacare repeal failure, v4.0
  6. Puerto Rico takes a turn for the worse
  7. Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) defeated
  8. White House staff using private e-mail accounts
  9. Price "resigns"
  10. Public argument with Carmen Yulín Cruz

That would be a pretty rough six months for any other President. For Trump, it's something close to "business as usual." In fact, commentators have largely stopped using the phrase "worst week ever," because Trump has had so many weeks like this.

Clearly, Trump knows that things are not going well, no matter how much he claims he's "winning." And so, he's about to use a gimmick he's pulled out several times before. Next week will be "deregulation week." On Monday, the President will hold a "cut the red tape" event at the White House, in which he will essentially list all the regulations he's gotten rid of. Thereafter, 10 federal agencies will give similar presentations, designed to talk about how much better things are with fewer regulations.

There can be little doubt that this is just a dog and pony show designed to attract a few positive headlines at a time when they are sorely needed. First of all, we recall "Made in America Week," or "Infrastructure Week," among others, and nothing ever came of those. And in this case, Trump doesn't even plan to propose any new initiatives or programs; he's just taking a victory lap. We shall see how many people are distracted by the President's card tricks. (Z)

Trump Insists Strange Benefited from His Endorsement

Dog and pony shows are not the only thing Donald Trump pulls out of his bag of tricks when things aren't going well. There's also mega-spin, in which he tries to convert a loss into a win. So it is with the defeat of Trump's candidate, Luther Strange, at the hands of Roy Moore in Alabama's primary early this week. On Saturday, the President—when he wasn't busy firing shots at Puerto Rico (or the NFL)—took to Twitter to make an announcement:

In analyzing the Alabama Primary race,FAKE NEWS always fails to mention that the candidate I endorsed went up MANY points after endorsement!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017

This is not remotely true. First of all, Strange did not go up in the polls after Trump endorsed him. Second, when Alabamians were specifically asked about the matter, only a minority (about 20%) said that Trump's endorsement mattered, while another segment (about 15%) actually said it made them less likely to vote for Strange. So, if Trump moved the needle, that movement was only very slight.

The President's problem here is that his spin has a very different audience than is usually the case. Normally, when he tries to rewrite a narrative, it is for the benefit of his base, which is almost invariably willing to buy what he's selling. But the base doesn't care too much about the nuances of a Senate primary; that's kind of inside baseball. The people who were watching with interest were the Republicans who will be running for office in 2018 and 2020. They wanted to know how important Trump's endorsement is. And what they learned is that, even in ruby red Alabama—which is most certainly Trump territory—it really doesn't matter at all. The pros know how to read the numbers, and they are not going to buy Trump's spin. All they are going to do is feel less beholden to him, particularly if his approval ratings remain anemic. No tweet is going to change that. (Z)

Even Trump's Family May Be Fired

There has never been a presidential administration with this much turnover in the upper echelons in its first nine months. Chiefs of staff, cabinet secretaries, press secretaries, and senior advisers have all been shown the door. Given the President's mercurial temperament and loyalty only to himself, nobody could feel entirely safe. A Jeff Sessions, for example, could be a Trump favorite one week, and in the dog house the next. The only people in the White House who seemed to be insulated from this were the President's family members, particularly his daughter Ivanka and his wunderkind son-in-law Jared Kushner, since The Donald places great value on family ties. Now, however, it appears that even they should not be sleeping easy.

The current fly in the ointment is the new chief of staff, John Kelly, who is not thrilled to let anyone have unfettered access to the President, even his relatives. Further, the blank check given to Kushner to work on virtually any problem he wants to, in any way he wants to, has rankled Kelly. An incident a couple of weeks ago, wherein Kushner was negotiating with several senators about DACA, while Kelly was entirely ignorant as to what was going on, has proven particularly grating. Depending on which inside source one believes, the Chief of Staff was either merely aggravated, or was absolutely furious.

Previously, when it was a family member versus a non-family member in the Trump White House, well, it was Steve Bannon who was sent packing. However, it appears that Trump is now having second thoughts about making his relatives part of the administration, thinking that it is creating "too much noise." Ostensibly his concern is the criticism being heaped on Ivanka and Jared, but he may also be considering the various scandals in which they have become enmeshed, not to mention the rather serious exposure that Kushner has vis-a-vis Russiagate. There is no chance that either of them would be "fired," per se; undoubtedly any change in roles would be framed in much more gentle terms. And there's no indication that anything is imminent; it's merely the case that the family's exit is no longer inconceivable. (Z)

Pence Will Romance Kochs

Vice President Mike Pence is a pretty low-profile member of the Trump administration, but he maintains a busy itinerary nonetheless. In a couple of weeks, he will deliver an address before the Koch brothers and a small group of their closest political-donor friends. The subject of the address has not been announced, and in the end, it doesn't matter. The real purpose is for Pence to genuflect before the GOP's most important donors.

Again, Pence is not really a member of Team Trump in any meaningful way. Nor, for that matter, are the Kochs, who disagree with the President about most things (besides his tax plans). So, it's hard to believe that this meeting is designed to advance the administration's agenda. More likely, its purpose is to advance the presidential aspirations of the Vice President. Of course, if and when Trump figures out what's going on, things could get very interesting. While presidents and their veeps don't always get along, such tensions are usually kept hidden. It's been almost 200 years since #1 and #2 were in a state of open warfare, and Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun did not have Twitter. (Z)

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