Schwartz: Trump has failed to protect American lives following Hurricane Maria

Alex Schwartz, Assistant Opinion Editor

The audacity. That’s all I could think when I read President Donald Trump’s tweets attacking Carmen Yulín Cruz this weekend, wherein he accused the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, of “poor leadership” and being influenced by “the Democrats” in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

It has been less than a week since I wrote about Trump’s delayed statement about the horrific situation in Puerto Rico. He hasn’t even made his promised trip to the island yet and has managed to worsen the situation. I am exceedingly disappointed but not surprised.

How dare Trump attack a public servant, a woman of color, who is literally wading through floodwaters to save her fellow citizens. How dare he insinuate that Puerto Rico should help itself emerge from this crisis. How dare he politicize this issue instead of simply pledging his support to the millions of Americans suffering on the island. How dare he do all of this from a golf course.

The ridiculousness of these tweets is obvious. There are actual photos of Cruz out in the streets of San Juan contributing to rescue and cleanup efforts. She has repeatedly called on her fellow Americans and international community to help Puerto Rico. She could never be accused of “poor leadership.” And yet, Trump feels it necessary to make light of her efforts while he hosts a golf tournament and does little to support relief efforts.

Not only were these statements a heinous attempt to politicize mass suffering, they demonstrated a striking lack of empathy on Trump’s part. Again, disappointing but not surprising. This is a man who tweeted last August, in the wake of widespread flooding in Louisiana, that “President Obama should have gone to Louisiana days ago, instead of golfing. Too little, too late!” Yet, over a year later, Trump sits from a physical and figurative place of privilege and suggests that hurricane victims — most of whom have lost their homes and will be without power for weeks — are capable of helping themselves.

Russel Honoré, the now-retired general who took over the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, had some choice words for our current president’s handling of Hurricane Maria: “The president has shown again he don’t give a damn about poor people,” Honoré said. “He doesn’t give a damn about people of color… I hate to say it that way, but there’s no other way to say it.”

I agree. There is no other way to say it. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Trump has repeatedly shown that he doesn’t care about poor people of color. His initial lack of a statement on the situation — followed by insults of San Juan’s mayor and the Puerto Rican people — seem to suggest that they aren’t “American” enough to be worth his time or, more importantly, vital federal resources.

As a journalist, writing and reading about Trump can be numbing. Tweet after tweet, statement after statement, rally after rally — it’s easy to begin to see this despicable behavior as normal. I almost feel as if my writing yet another “anti-Trump” column adds to all the noise that most people have begun to ignore. But this time, it’s different.

After the election last year, I remember hearing this reassurance from many people: “Trump has no choice but to be a good president; the American people are in his hands now, and he has a duty to protect them.” I think a lot of us (read: privileged white people) tried to find some comfort in convincing ourselves that his behavior wouldn’t directly ruin the lives of Americans. Unproductive neoliberalism aside, that sentiment has been resolutely disproven by the events of the past several weeks. Trump’s disregard for Puerto Ricans isn’t just an example of his bad temperament; it is worsening the situation in Puerto Rico in real time. Lives continue to be lost and ruined because of Trump’s lack of leadership.

If we as Americans can learn anything from this heartbreaking story, it’s that marginalized people don’t have the option to take comfort in the ideal that Trump’s duty is to protect Americans. They’re the ones whose lives Trump is directly responsible for degrading. His handling of Hurricane Maria is yet another impeachable offense, and we must all recognize that just because it is an offense against low-income people of color does not make it any less inexcusable.

I’ll refer back to another one of Honoré’s comments to illustrate the audacity of Trump’s hypocritical attack of Cruz: “The mayor’s living on a cot, and I hope the president has a good day of golf.”

Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.