It is impossible to blame a single individual for the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which brought thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in destruction to Puerto Rico. To attempt to do so would be not only faulty, but hubristic. Nature will do as it wishes. But in the history of Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump’s name will be tied closely to the story of Maria. In his cocoon of conspiracies, Trump has constructed a narrative in which the deaths and destruction are mere fabrications of a plot to tarnish his legacy. But the deaths and destruction happened on his watch, as his government flailed, and as his strongman bluster failed in the face of a tempest.
That failure was crystalized in an image that has haunted the Trump administration. During a visit to Puerto Rico, the president attended a relief event at a church in Guaynabo. The image is indelible: Trump, facing a throng of Puerto Ricans with outstretched arms, launching rolls of paper towels. The symbolism is thick enough to cut. A president whose job it is to serve Americans, to do the impossible to keep them safe and come to their aid in moments of crisis, reduced that role to cheerful charity for a crowd of brown faces, doing his “best Stephen Curry impersonation,” as a pool report would later describe it.