by Linda Chavez
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands drowned while President Donald Trump tweeted. It is hard to conclude otherwise. On Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria — the second major hurricane in less than two weeks — hit the islands, which together are home to some 3.5 million American citizens. Yet for a week following the devastation, the president found it somehow more important to focus his personal attention on tweeting about football players and the owners of their teams than he did on his job as commander in chief.
The only possible way to save lives and restore order on the islands was to order a massive deployment of U.S. troops to help their fellow Americans immediately after the hurricane hit, but it took almost a full week for that to happen. Army Brig. Gen. Rich Kim did not arrive until Sept. 27 to take control of some 5,000 active-duty forces operating on the ground and 2,500 National Guardsmen, but far more troops are needed. Some experts have suggested that 50,000 is a more realistic number.
The White House was proactive in both Texas and Florida when huge hurricanes headed their way, earning the president deserved credit for doing what he needed to help Americans whose lives were upended and property was destroyed. But American citizens who live in U.S. territory in the Caribbean seemed to be an afterthought in Trump world. When the president finally addressed the American people on the issue — a week after Maria made landfall — it was mostly to announce he would head to the Caribbean for a photo-op next week. And instead of reminding everyone that all Puerto Ricans are American citizens, he bragged about how many Puerto Ricans he knows as a native of New York City — which was cringe-worthy, given his history as a landlord who declined to rent to Puerto Ricans (and blacks and Dominicans) in the 1970s until forced to do so by the U.S. Department of Justice.
This has been a bad week for the president and his White House — and not just on the administration’s slow response to Hurricane Maria. Trump personally managed to reignite a protest movement that had largely died down — namely, some players kneeling rather than standing for the national anthem at football games — by calling protesters SOBs and urging their employers to fire them. He failed to rally enough support among Republicans for the Senate to vote on yet another health care reform bill, killing reform for this year. And Trump’s endorsement failed to sway voters in Alabama, as Trump’s candidate lost to a former judge who twice defied his duty to enforce the U.S. Constitution in his courtroom.
On Wednesday, the president tried to refocus — this time on tax reform, which has been a long time coming. But given his short attention span, he’s unlikely to keep the focus there for long. I worked in President Ronald Reagan’s White House as director of public liaison during the fight for tax reform that started in 1985. I know what razor focus looks like; President Reagan had it, as did every member of his team. It was every day, every week for months until the president signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986. It involved hundreds of speeches by the president and members of the administration and visits and calls between members of Congress and the president, his Cabinet and other officials. I coordinated bringing groups into the White House for briefings with administration officials — friendly groups, as well as those who were skeptical and needed convincing. It was also a bipartisan effort. I remember flying with the president on Marine One into Rep. Dan Rostenkowski’s Chicago district (the Democratic congressman was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a sponsor of the tax reform bill) to marshal support. If President Trump wants tax reform, he will need that kind of effort and attention. Pardon me for wondering what the game plan is for this White House.
Americans deserve a president who can keep his mind focused on important things — such as saving lives in natural disasters by ordering the number of personnel and material commensurate with the scope of the disaster, day one, not stoking culture wars, and working with Congress to pass legislation by getting on the phone, meeting, strategizing and compromising, if necessary, not figuring out whom to blame for failing. Will America ever get from Donald Trump the president it deserves? He’s more than eight months into his term, and we haven’t yet.