Tales of the Presidency

President Donald Trump talks to media as he walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, Sept. 29, 2017, to Marine One for the short trip to Andrews Air Force Base en route to Bedminster, N.J.. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Carolyn Kaster/AP

TPM Reader JL shared these thoughts about the progress of the unfolding situation in Puerto Rico …

I’ve been laid up and therefore watching way too much CNN & MSNBC. 99% of the time I think the media makes too much of POTUS’ day to day role in governmental affairs.

But certain situations go beyond the capabilities of any agency or any existing interagency structures. I keep thinking of what I heard Honore say the other day. After a stumbling initial response gwb put Honore in charge and instructed the relevant military authorities to give him everything he needed.

That is precisely what Trump hasn’t done. The military is involved but no one has been given the kind of authority that Honore had. And only one person can do that. That Trump hasn’t done so after ten days is unforgivable. Way worse than Katrina.

Here’s an edited and expanded version of my response …

I think this is largely right and I’ve been thinking along similar lines. Ideally – and probably still mainly the case – FEMA and other relevant agencies are moving into gear whether or not the President is paying attention or not. It is the biggest conceit of Presidents and their fiercest critics that the President is actively managing the entire government on a regular basis. One unexpected plus in this situation and the other reason storm calamities is that for whatever reason, Trump nominated an experienced FEMA administrator, Brock Long. I’m not saying he’s perfect. Anyone who gets anywhere in Trumpland must be compromised or compromisable in some way. But he’s not some Trump friend or someone who used to work at one of the golf courses. He’s an experienced emergency management administrator. That’s good.

But in a situation of sufficient extremity the crisis is simply beyond the abilities of FEMA and other related agencies. As much as we rightly mock Trump’s real time discovery of what an island is, I’m sure Puerto Rico not being connected by land to the rest of the US and in some cases having a more fragile infrastructure has added to those challenges.

That’s when you need presidential or at least White House level authority kicking things in to place that go beyond the standard plan, even the plan for emergencies which are, by definition, non-standard. That means waiving regulations, getting the national guard and likely the regular military involved and many other things. As JL notes, many of those are things only a President can do and a President who has enough top-flight people at the highest levels to help him know which things he can do.

I’m not sure JL is right that those things still haven’t happened after ten days. I’m not sure they have either. I can’t make that sweeping a claim. But what we’ve learned from the tick-tock of the first days of the crisis, is that there were a critical three to five days post-landfall when the President and the White House simply weren’t engaged. The President was in the midst of a self-created blow up over the NFL. He wasn’t physically at the White House, which was highly significant when combined with his inattention. I’m confident that people at FEMA were kicking into gear regardless. But the nature of the crisis was simply beyond FEMA’s capacity to handle alone and FEMA itself was stretched thin by two other crises in Texas and Florida.

After that 3-5 day period of inattention, the administration did begin to kick into gear. I’m sure the response remains inadequate. But it also seems clear that the response did shift substantially after day 5 or so. By then critical time had been lost. Things that could have been done on day one could no longer be done or, more specifically, they could no longer have as great an effect. They lost critical time.

It’s in a very different category. But Trump’s personal focus has clearly been mostly on defending himself and attacking his critics. In itself that’s only optics. It’s unclear how much that continues to hobble the management of recovery efforts or whether that is all underway regardless. But any sensible person would understand that you can’t ever say ‘We’re doing great‘ or “It’s going great” in this kind of situation even if you’re doing everything possible and as best as you possibly can. But that sort of human, commonsense understanding is completely beyond this President. Some things can never be fixed.