A pair of crises tests Trump’s presidential empathy
White House chief of staff John Kelly encouraged a simple tweet of condolences. Aides wrote somber remarks that had Trump quoting scripture. Some around the president were encouraged to hear him connecting to the tragedy on a personal level — talking about his property and calling friends there — a sign he was taking in the impact of the event.
The anxious counsel from his aides as Trump prepared to react to the largest mass shooting in U.S. history was a reminder of Trump’s troubled track record in such moments. Trump has often had difficulty embracing a central role of the American presidency: consoling people dealing with intense grief, regardless of their political affiliation or support for the White House’s agenda. It’s a quality that is rarely debated or analyzed on the campaign trail, yet one that can shape the way Americans view the success of their president.
Trump’s challenges with empathy were on full display this week, as he responded to two disasters at once with very different results. Trump ultimately stuck to the script in Las Vegas, avoiding controversy and assuming the role of national healer. It was a measured response that stood in stark contrast to his uneven response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico, which saw Trump lash out at the mayor of San Juan, urge officials to say positive things about his administration and throw rolls of paper towels into the crowd at a relief center like he was tossing T-shirts at a sporting event.
This account is based on conversations with 11 White House aides and others who spoke with the president this week.
Presidents are remembered for the way they respond in moments of great tumult or trial.
Bill Clinton’s speech after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing helped him right his struggling presidency. George W. Bush’s bullhorn address while standing atop the rubble of the World Trade Center helped heal the nation after the 9/11 attacks. Yet Bush’s presidency would never fully recover from the government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which left many Americans with the perception that the president was detached from the suffering on the ground.
Trump’s response to the devastation in Puerto Rico has generated a raft of criticism.
In the first days after Maria, Trump was more focused on his feud with NFL players who were kneeling during the national anthem, blasting them in private to his allies and in public on Twitter. As images of the devastation in Puerto Rico began appearing more frequently on cable television, aides intensified their briefings, but Trump complained about the island’s debt and became fixated on the criticism from San Juan mayor’s, Carmen Yulín Cruz, according to three White House officials and outside allies.
Despite the scenes of devastation around Cruz, Trump decided to hit back on Twitter, ignoring advice from Kelly and homeland security adviser Tom Bossert to focus on the recovery.
The public has been watching.
Just 32 percent of Americans approve of how Trump has handled disaster relief in the U.S. territory, while 49 percent disapprove, according to a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. On Thursday, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., called Trump’s visit to the island an insult.
“When we see the president of the United States go to Puerto Rico throwing toilet paper, paper towels, what is that saying to the American people? It is an affront,” Lewis said.