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.
Perhaps that image is unfair to Trump without context. After all, the relief event was only a sliver of the administration’s involvement in the disaster response, and the people in the room cheered the president in the moment. But given the background of that response—and how it compares with the response to Hurricane Harvey, which struck the mainland Gulf Coast just a few weeks before Maria—the blunder is a useful distillation. The federal response was belated and haphazard; securing crucial supplies and reestablishing lines of communication on the island took weeks, amid a cloud of ambivalence and ineptitude emanating from the White House. “This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water,” Trump said during a speech that attempted to excuse the lack of federal action. Puerto Rico is indeed an island, but it’s only about 1,000 miles from the U.S. mainland. The president flies about the same distance on his frequent trips to Mar-a-Lago.
We now know that hundreds or perhaps thousands of lives were lost as a direct result of the federal government’s chaotic and ineffectual response. Trump’s own reaction to those deaths bespeaks an underlying ill will that goes beyond nonchalance: He has denied that the deaths of up to 3,000 Puerto Ricans even happened. For grieving families in a diaspora marked by colonialist malevolence, it must be reiterated that this is an official denial from the United States government that their pain even exists.
Presidents are judged, and their legacies forged, on the moments that their ambitions truly reflected the awesome power and responsibility of the office—or failed to meet the occasion. John F. Kennedy peered into the void of space and willed Americans to do the hard work of getting there. Abraham Lincoln defied the very founders of the country in proclaiming emancipation for the enslaved. Franklin D. Roosevelt wrestled with fear itself as he sought to transform the country and the government to fight the Great Depression. And, in 2017, Donald Trump stared into the eye of the most lethal hurricane in a century, and threw paper towels.