Congressional Republicans are about to play a new round of their least favorite game with reporters, “What’d ya think of that latest tweet?”
“Sorry, can’t comment, haven’t looked at Twitter today,” will be the response for most, but that’ll only work for a few hours. America’s about to have a days-long partisan food fight over whether the real death toll is closer to six or to 3,000, the figure accepted by the government of Puerto Rico. As you’re reading this, Hannity’s probably preparing a 20-minute package wondering if Maria killed anyone at all. The president’s honor now depends on populists fighting for this hill.
The only good thing you can say about it is that, as Trump conspiracy theories go, this one’s *relatively* plausible — more so than vaccines possibly causing autism, at least. The 3,000 figure is a guesstimate based on a comparison of deaths on the island during a “normal” year and deaths in the aftermath of the one-two punch of Irma and Maria that Puerto Rico sustained in 2017. It may well be that only a few dozen people died while the storm was raging but many more died in the weeks/months that followed as the lack of water, electricity, and first responders left the old and sick vulnerable. Trump could have spun that in various ways, noting that two major hurricanes in short order are a heavy lift even for FEMA and that Puerto Rico’s infrastructure problems didn’t start on January 20 of last year. If he was feeling really bold, he could have claimed that 3,000 was a “success” insofar as the toll could have been much worse. Instead he lunged for “fake news,” as is his instinct.
You can understand him resorting to dubious spin when he’s put on the spot with a question about Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria. But why would he raise the subject himself on Twitter? One of the amazing details about the new death toll is that the media had paid relatively little attention to it just because there’s too much other Trump-generated news on their radar every day. For any other administration, an upward revision to deaths after a hurricane from 50 or so people to a number reminiscent of 9/11 would have been a story that raged for weeks. “In a normal government,” notes Benjy Sarlin, “there would be a commission investigating the Puerto Rico response for months already and hauling administration officials to testify how the president got this information” about the death toll being exaggerated. As it is, in an age when a dozen new shiny objects appear each day, it barely registers.
So why is Trump forcing the issue? How does it benefit the GOP before the midterms to debate a topic that does them no favors and which had already largely escaped the public’s attention?
WaPo published a story this morning coincidentally, before his Puerto Rico tweets, noting that his spin from a few days ago about FEMA’s handling of Maria being an “unsung success” is an example of a tactic he traditionally uses when faced with bad news. If you accuse him of having failed, his response is to argue that not only wasn’t his performance as bad as you’re claiming, it was actually good. Conceding that “we could have done better” or whatever would amount to an admission that the accusation of failure is basically true, with the question purely a matter of how bad it was. Trump rejects that premise. There was no failure at all. Maria’s aftermath was an out-and-out success. Caught between claims of failure and stunning success, the casual observer is left with no idea of what the actual truth is, which is the point. This morning’s tweets suggest, though, that he himself thought that a blithe assertion of success wouldn’t hack it this time, that he had it to flesh it out somehow by questioning whether deaths after the storm really were attributable to it or to a Democratic plot to make him look bad. How come? Is this an actual messaging strategy or is he just so defensive about it that he couldn’t resist bringing it up on Twitter?
Here’s Paul Ryan, who couldn’t avoid facing a question about it, doing his best to clean up.
.@SpeakerRyan on Puerto Rico: "I have no reason to dispute those numbers. Those are just the facts of what happens when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated place like an island." pic.twitter.com/LdBDhsN9Mq
— CSPAN (@cspan) September 13, 2018
Update: The people with the most to lose politically from this morning’s presidential message are Republicans in Florida, where many Puerto Ricans relocated after last year’s storms. Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis are both lying low for now. Others there are not.
Update: Another famous Floridian speaks out — as obliquely as he can.
Update: Scott runs away.
Update: Here’s the point of the study in one graph.
— Will Jordan (@williamjordann) September 13, 2018