In two tweets blasted out early on Thursday, the president washed his hands of responsibility for Hurricane Maria and the ensuing death toll on Puerto Rico. On top of that, he pointed a finger at the Democrats for focusing on the administration’s role in the casualty count.
What’s notable here, aside from the familiar cycle of Trump’s outrageous tweets, is the underlying sentiment they expose: Puerto Ricans are not “Americans” in Trump’s eyes—unlike Texans and Floridians who helped send him to the White House. To the president, they are members of a “caddy class,” not full citizens but “the help.”
In the face of a grim reality for Puerto Ricans, Trump was tweeting: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico” and “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad … I love Puerto Rico!”
To put things in context, the number of deaths on the island roughly equaled the number of Americans killed on 9/11. Said differently, Hurricane Maria claimed two-thirds of the number of soldiers who died fighting in Iraq. Sadly, it appears that some lives are destined to be remembered while others are there simply to be forgotten.
Tom Bossert, Trump’s former chief adviser on homeland security, framed things this way on Thursday, “The missing part was empathy … I wish he’d paused and expressed that, instead of just focusing on the response success.” Likewise, according to Rep. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, there was “no reason to dispute” the accuracy of Hurricane Maria’s death toll. As to be expected by now, Ryan said little more.
In the face of general Republican timidity, George Conway, the husband of Kellyanne Conway, a Trump senior adviser and former campaign manager, let the Twitterverse know where he stood. Shortly after Trump’s pushback against claims of having botched rescue efforts in Puerto Rico, Conway retweeted Samantha Schmidt of the Washington Post who wrote: “The island had a total infrastructure collapse. Patients languished in hospitals without power. Damaged roads made it impossible for people to get dialysis. Medical specialists were virtually nonexistent. We know because we’ve talked to these families ….”
Indeed, Trump’s take on things also flies in the face of government policy on how death tolls resulting from natural disasters are to be calculated. Specifically, after Hurricane Ike, a storm that hit Galveston, Texas, in 2008, the Texas secretary of state adopted a standard for quantifying hurricane-related death using measures developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which were then subsequently re-issued by the federal government’s National Institutes of Health.
As a medical research paper on the Texas hurricane concluded, “Defining the relation of death to hurricane using an active mortality surveillance system is possible.” Practically speaking, however, don’t expect this to have any impact on the president. Rather, it is more likely that Alex Azar, the secretary for health and human services, will be called upon to get NIH and CDC to change the definition of “death.”
TrumpWorld’s disconnect from Puerto Rico—other than as a tax haven or as a possible U.S.-version of the Cayman Islands—is no secret. In the March 2016 Puerto Rico Republican primary, Trump garnered little more than 13 percent of the vote, finishing a distant second to Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio.
Adding to that is how some Trump-backers have come to appreciate the island’s hospitable tax environment. There is John Paulson for example, a one-time hedge fund god who fell from grace, but who donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee. Paulson has also spearheaded a drive to entice traders and private-equity players to the island because of its low tax rates. Upstairs-downstairs and Gini coefficients anyone?
When a Paulson fund went bust in 2013, Trump had this say about the early supporter of his presidential bid: “Great investor John Paulson just sought bankruptcy protection for a unit of his hedge fund-very smart-but he didn’t go bankrupt you morons!” Just like the Trump casinos.
Or take Toby Neugebauer, a co-founder of Quantum Energy Partners, a Houston private-equity firm, as another example. The son of a former Texas congressman, Neugebauer moved to the island in 2014, ostensibly for the schools. When asked about Puerto Rico’s tax laws, he had this to say: “I wouldn’t have moved for the taxes, but it is an interesting proposition.”
Facts are stubborn things, and unfortunately for the White House and Republicans, Hurricane Maria’s won’t be so easily forgotten. The devastation in Puerto Rico can’t be quarantined ahead of the midterm elections, now less than two months away, and voters will be reminded of it again by Hurricane Florence.
Like the storms that have lashed the mainland, Trump and the administration appear to be going all-out in the face of Florence—as they should. But what seems to underlie the president’s positioning is a sense that some Americans are more American, or more equal, than others.
Denizens of the mainland and the ranks of hedge fund titans can expect to be treated as citizens. Members of the “caddy class,” well that’s a whole other story. From here, it looks like they need to gratefully smile and take whatever the president deigns to ladle out come hell or high water, literally.