Tact is not President Trump’s thing.
But any president who tweets what Trump tweeted about Puerto Rico – in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster to hit the island in a century – doesn’t just lack tact. He needs to be kept away from children and small pets.
Trump's "patriotic" battle with the NFL deserved more attention than millions of Americans cut off from the world out in the Caribbean. So Monday night marked his first utterance on Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria wrecked the U.S. territory on September 20:
“Texas and Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble..”
That’s like taking your sweet time to visit a family member in the hospital who’s broken every limb in a car accident – then telling her, “You’re a lousy driver. And by the way, you look like hell.”
Little wonder the President’s critics are already calling Puerto Rico “Trump’s Katrina.” They argue he's been relatively slow to mobilize relief forces to the island, whose 3.4 million residents are U.S. citizens. And they insist his callous tweet about the Spanish-speaking U.S. commonwealth is simply an extension of his Latino-bashing political shtick.
I won’t argue with any of that. Still, even though Trump is a head of state with few statesman skills (or, let’s be honest, he’s the unfiltered old uncle sitting next to you at Thanksgiving) I’ll admit I fear something may get lost later in his boorish tweet heat:
Even if his remark was wrong, technically it was right.
Long before Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the island commonwealth was indeed an infrastructure and debt disaster.
Almost all of Puerto Rico is without power right now – and may be for weeks if not months – but it’s not all because of Maria’s monster winds. It’s also because Puerto Rico’s bankrupt electric company, PREPA, is such a poorly run utility the island experiences power outages five times more frequently than any place on the U.S. mainland, according to a recent study. It also costs PREPA twice what Florida utilities lay out to generate a kilowatt-hour.
Worse, Puerto Rico right now has scant access to potable water. Maria had a lot to do with that. But her rains and storm surges didn’t have to work all that hard to sully the island’s drinking supply. This year the non-profit National Resources Defense Council reported almost every drop of Puerto Rico’s drinking water violates U.S. safety standards.
HOUSE OF CARDS
Then there’s the massive debt Trump correctly if crassly mentioned. More than $70 billion of it – the product of decades of reckless, thoughtless Puerto Rican government spending and borrowing that will leave a dark stain on the commonwealth’s political class, conservatives and liberals alike, for many decades to come. The fiscal apocalypse left the island a house of cards in the face of thunderstorms, let alone a Category 4 hurricane raking its length and width.
But here’s the important detail Trump left out: Washington, which has overseen Puerto Rico for more than a century, has itself been a pretty negligent and incompetent overseer.
It aided and abetted the island’s bankruptcy by letting Wall Street engage in irresponsible lending to the government in San Juan. It has clung stubbornly and cruelly to legislative malfeasance like the Jones Act (which unfairly restricts Puerto Rico to trade with the U.S. mainland) and senseless rules that bar the island from commonsense bankruptcy protection.
And it has generally treated the island like an inconvenient afterthought in the Caribbean.
That’s why Trump and Washington have been caught fairly flat-footed in Maria’s wake. They didn’t realize how badly the island could be devastated by the storm – largely because they didn’t appreciate how vulnerable the derelictions committed there and here had made the island.
They have a chance now to make up for all the carelessness – and to make sure Puerto Rico gets the same recovery attention Texas and Florida got. And then, to make sure things change.
Maybe U.S. statehood, which most Puerto Ricans seem to want, is the answer. Either way, when Trump visits the island next Tuesday let’s hope he has something more humane to tell them.
Or just something your uncle wouldn’t say at Thanksgiving.