If a politician commits a gaffe but doesn’t know that it’s a gaffe, has a gaffe actually been committed?
That question came to mind as I read a startling tweeted denial from President Trump that 3,000 Americans died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year — and accused Democrats of inflating the death toll to make him “look as bad as possible.”
“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” he tweeted on Thursday morning. “When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000… “
Oh? And who cooked up these numbers? Guess who.
“…..This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” he continued. “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
Was that final exclamation a sincere expression of love or sarcasm? With Trump it’s hard to tell.
As he displayed a couple of days earlier when he arrived at a Pennsylvania airport en route to solemn Sept. 11 memorial ceremonies pumping his fists in the air as if he had arrived at the Super Bowl, this president can be tragically deficient in the empathy department.
But his “3,000 people did not die” approach to Puerto Rico’s losses marks a new low in his defensive, self-focused and paranoid approach to governance. In the same vein as conspiracy theorists who allege that just about every catastrophe from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the Sandy Hook school massacre and beyond is a hoax, Trump showed himself to be a hurricane truther.
Only a day earlier he was insisting that his administration did a “fantastic job” in Puerto Rico.
“We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida,” he tweeted, “(and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan).”
His shot at Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz is her reward for criticizing Team Trump’s responses to her city’s pleas for help.
Or, at least, it was supposed to be. For other politicians, his deep denialism might be viewed as a gaffe. To Trump, it’s a political tactic: treat failure as success, unless you can blame it on someone else. Show disdain for inconvenient facts. Make a partisan appeal by accusing your opponents of being partisan.
And tune out anyone who finds even a hint of racism or ethnic bias in your strategy. We saw that a year ago when Trump tweeted that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
The body count that vexed Trump so much resulted from a George Washington University study commissioned by the island’s government, a study that actually came out with a lower body count than a Harvard study that estimated more than 4,600 dead earlier this year.
But critics of Trump’s imprudent hurricane tweets have upset Trump’s friends closer to home, as Republicans try to hold onto their congressional majority in the November midterm elections. House Speaker Paul Ryan quickly announced that he had found “no reason to dispute” the estimates that Trump wanted to call a hoax.
Indeed, with the morgues full and people burying their friends and relatives in their front yards, Puerto Ricans had little reason to doubt the numbers, either. Perhaps President Trump forgot that Puerto Rican’s are born American citizens who can vote. Indeed, thousands are reported to have moved to Florida, where they could have a big impact on future elections.
That’s what makes Trump’s denial of Puerto Rico’s tragedy so shocking. Seldom do we see a savvy politician talk himself so eagerly into a hole.
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Writes for Tribune Content Agency.