President Trump poking fun at his own hair, in the wake of both Hurricane Michael and Florence. For more on the story here is Zachary Devita.
WASHINGTON – Hours after a deadly tornado ripped through Alabama over the weekend, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to promise the state would receive “A Plus treatment” from the federal government as local officials began their recovery.
But the president’s strongly worded commitment – and his decision to visit the state on Friday, just days after the storms there killed 23 people – marked a sharp contrast with the rhetoric he has used recently to describe disasters in bluer parts of the country, where he often criticizes local leaders and threatens to withdraw federal aid.
Because Trump directs his most pointed criticism of disaster recovery at California, which endured its deadliest wildfire season in history last year, and Puerto Rico, which has been digging out from Hurricane Maria since 2017, critics have questioned whether the president is playing favorites with states and constituencies that support him.
“The rhetoric does matter,” said Rafael Lemaitre, a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman during the Obama administration. “Hurricanes don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. Tornadoes don’t care if you live in a red or a blue state.”
Even Trump’s critics acknowledge there is no evidence the process itself – driven largely by career FEMA officials – has been affected by politics. And Trump previously tweeted words of support to Puerto Rico and California similar to those he used for Alabama.
“Our hearts are with you,” he wrote to Puerto Ricans hours before Maria made landfall on the island in 2017. “Will be there to help!”
But former FEMA officials who worked for presidents of both parties say Trump’s penchant for bombast and public bickering with state and local leaders sends the wrong message to victims of disasters and can distract from state and federal cooperation.
Trump on California
Trump travels to Alabama Friday, days after approving Gov. Kay Ivey’s request for a major disaster declaration for storm-battered Lee County. The tornado was one of 34 that struck Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina over the weekend.
“FEMA has been told directly by me to give the A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama and the wonderful people who have been so devastated by the Tornadoes,” the president posted on Twitter Monday, hours after the storms struck.
Trump’s rapid response in Alabama comes as he has repeatedly slammed California with claims that local officials have not properly maintained forests to prevent wildfires. In fact, nearly 60 percent of California’s 33 million acres of forest are owned and managed by federal agencies, according to the University of California.
Combined, the Woolsey and Camp fires killed nearly 90 Californians. Trump visited the state in November and toured devastated communities, including the town of Paradise, walking between the charred remains of homes as smoke hung in the air. He took aim at some of those same officials in a threatening tweet months later.
“Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money,” Trump wrote in January. “It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who had praised the president a day before that tweet was posted for his support for the state’s recovery efforts, responded by arguing that “disasters and recovery are no time for politics.”
There’s no evidence Trump followed through with his threat and withheld aid.
An ‘A-Plus’ grade?
Trump has used the “A Plus” line before, recalling the grade former FEMA administrators gave him for the response to the hurricanes in 2017 that affected Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Michael Brown, FEMA administrator under President George W. Bush, told CNN in late 2017 that Trump deserved an “A-plus.”
But Brown also criticized Trump in that interview for sparring with state and local officials, adding that such disagreements would be better handled privately.
“No, it’s not helpful,” Brown said. “Please, Mr. President, pick up the phone, don’t tweet.”
Talk versus action
Trump made 118 major disaster declarations during the first two years of his presidency, and even his critics acknowledge there is no evidence that politics has played a role in that process. Trump has made disaster declarations in red and blue states, including for a snowstorm in New York, a volcanic eruption in Hawaii and flooding in Vermont.
Governors request a disaster declaration through a regional FEMA office. Agency officials on the ground and in Washington estimate the extent of the damage and make a recommendation to the president, which is almost always followed. The process means career officials at FEMA have a major role in deciding where disasters are declared.
“Knowing the folks I know at FEMA, if anything, they bend over backwards to make sure there’s no favoritism,” said Craig Fugate, a former Florida emergency official who led the federal agency for most of President Barack Obama’s time in office. “I’ve not seen any correlation between the tweets and FEMA doing anything differently.”
Still, Fugate said, Trump’s rhetoric is “not helpful.”
Neither the White House nor FEMA responded to requests for comment, but White House officials have previously said Trump’s criticism of California and Puerto Rico is based on conditions on the ground before the disasters.
Spat with Puerto Rico
Trump’s battles with some Puerto Rico officials, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, have continued long after the storm passed.
The president claimed last fall, without evidence, that Puerto Rico was planning to use federal disaster money to pay off its debt. Since then the administration has repeatedly considered tapping into disaster funds, including to help pay for the president’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but has faced resistance in Congress.
“The U.S. will NOT bail out long outstanding & unpaid obligations with hurricane relief money!” Trump wrote in October.
Trump questioned a report putting the death toll from the storm at nearly 3,000, suggesting it was an effort by Democrats to discredit him. More recently, the White House publicly opposed an additional $600 million in post-hurricane food aid to the island, calling it “excessive and unnecessary.”
FEMA officials say the delays in delivering aid, restoring water service and getting the island’s power grid working were due to several factors: an antiquated transportation and power network, the island’s difficult terrain, and political turf wars that prevented smooth coordination.
But Erica González, acting director of Power 4 Puerto Rico, a coalition that advocates for the island, said the island deserved better from its government.
“Whether in Alabama or elsewhere after a disaster, everyone deserves A-plus treatment,” she said. “Where was that A-plus urgency … when it came to helping the people of Puerto Rico?”
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