On Sept. 13, United States President Donald Trump posted a tweet in which he claimed that “3,000 did not die” in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria which struck the Island last year. He claimed that the official death toll was made up by Democrats to make him look bad. This is an outright lie. To begin with, the study which informed the official death toll was conducted independently by George Washington University. Trump’s tweet drew criticism and rebuke from Democrats and Republicans alike, and the independent fact checking organization Politifact rated this claim as “False.”
Trump telling easily disprovable lies on Twitter has been a constant of his presidency from the very beginning. According to The Washington Post’s fact checker, as of Sept. 4, Trump had personally made 4,713 false or misleading claims since his inauguration, averaging about eight lies per day, and Politifact rates a staggering 69 percent of his public statements to be at least mostly false. All of these lies and half truths serve to undermine public trust in the institutions of American democracy, doing real long-term harm to this nation. This tweet, however, is not just dishonest, but deeply disturbing. It sends a message to the American people that Trump cares more about how he thinks he looks than about the lives of American people.
What happened in Puerto Rico was a tragedy, and there were several factors that lead to such a high death toll, including but not limited to insufficient preparation on the part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a lack of resources allocated as compared to responses in Florida and Texas and a mismanaged federal response that meant power wasn’t restored to some parts of the island until nearly a year later. Which of these factors were most significant and who exactly is culpable are important questions that merit debate, oversight and investigation. The United States also ought to seriously reevaluate the pseudo-colonial relationship it has with its territories. However, what should be clear to everyone is that there are important lessons that need to be learned so that America can do better next time a hurricane strikes. Acknowledging and learning from these past mistakes is especially important with Hurricane Florence having recently struck the American coastline, and the task of recovery looming before the nation. Those lessons will go unlearned if the executive branch refuses to acknowledge the very real problems with the federal response, and many more people could suffer as a result. In fact, recently The New York Times reported that rather than look into ways to improve disaster relief in the future, the Department of Homeland Security has transferred nearly 10 million dollars from FEMA’s budget to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
One of the many unofficial jobs that has been delegated to the president over the years is consoler-in-chief. In the wake of a tragedy, it falls upon the president to reassure and comfort the American people, to unite the nation and to lend moral leadership to the looming task of overcoming and rebuilding. Now, after a tragedy which has claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans, the victims deserve to be addressed by a leader who empathizes with them, commiserates with them, or mourns with them. Instead, Trump has abdicated this responsibility and denies the deaths of thousands while calling the survivors liars, all because he thinks it makes him look better. Imagine if President Wilson had denied the sinking of the Lusitania, if President Roosevelt had ignored the attack on Pearl Harbor, or if President Bush had called 9/11 a hoax meant to hurt his approval ratings.
Not only is this a vile way to act in this particular instance, but it sheds more light on Trump’s deeply disturbing outlook on the presidency. Though he occupies the office of a public servant, Trump does not see it as his responsibility to serve the public. He is a self serving narcissist who only cares about anything to the extent that it affects him. He sees no benefit to helping anyone else unless he thinks he can gain something from it. He focused on Puerto Rico long enough to get a few photos of himself pretending to help, and then as far as he was concerned, Puerto Rico was on its own. Now, after a year of apathy towards the people of Puerto Rico, this study poses an inconvenience to him as the nation deals with Hurricane Florence, so Trump employed his administration’s signature tactic, deny reality at all costs and let Fox News, Infowars and Breitbart sell it to his base. By his words and his deeds, Trump has told the people of Puerto Rico, and the American people as a whole, that his pride is more important than their lives. The next time disaster strikes, Americans will not only have to worry about surviving the immediate danger, they will have to worry that the president of the United States may ignore their suffering because it reflects poorly on him.
America deserves better than this, but so far the Republican-controlled Congress has refused to hold the president accountable, so the American people must turn out to vote and hold Congress accountable, or prepare for this to become the norm.