As Puerto Rico prepares for its first presidential visit in the midst of catastrophe, all sides appear to have decided to step back from political disaster. Just before stepping onto Marine One on the first leg of his journey, Donald Trump offered a surprising note of praise for his most vociferous critic, San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. His tone shifted considerably from that used over the past few days:
At the outset of his Tuesday morning Trip to the island, Trump suggested Cruz had begun to come around.
“Well, I think she’s come back a long way. And you know, I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done and people are looking at that,” the president told reporters before boarding Marine One on the White House’s south lawn. “whether it’s her or anybody else, they’re all starting to say it. I appreciate very much the governor and his comments. He has said we have done an incredible job and that’s the truth.”
Trump did not refer to any specific comments from Cruz that indicated she had “come back” from her criticism of the federal response.
Later in the morning, however, Cruz announced that she would attend meetings with Trump and FEMA, after having been criticized for lack of engagement with relief efforts. Cruz framed it as an attempt to remove partisan politics from disaster recovery:
Trump is en route to Puerto Rico to view the devastation. Cruz has accepted the White House’s invitation to attend a briefing with the president in San Juan.
“I have accepted the invitation on behalf of the people of San Juan and out of respect for the American people represented by the Office of the President of the United States,” Cruz said in a statement.
“I will use this opportunity to reiterate the primary message: this is about saving lives, not about politics; this is also about giving the people of Puerto Rico the respect we deserve; and recognizing the moral imperative of both.”
Cruz greeted Trump at Muniz AFB with a handshake:
— Fox News (@FoxNews) October 3, 2017
That appears to be Cruz’ “comeback”; agreeing to at least sit down with Trump and discussing the issues rather than doing an endless series of TV interviews blasting the relief efforts. Trump apparently appreciates Cruz’ decision to engage, but he still made a point about partisanship when he landed in Puerto Rico this afternoon:
President Trump to Puerto Rico's governor: "Right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics" https://t.co/rKqGtYA53A
— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 3, 2017
Will Trump play politics with the recovery if Cruz reverts back to form? That will be the first test of Trump’s unity effort, the NY Times’ Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman predict. Can he handle some tough talk about any potential shortcomings in his operation, or will criticism set him off and restart the partisan sniping?
President Trump called on the nation to seek “unity and peace” on Monday, in the aftermath of one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. Less than two hours later, he offered conciliatory words to the people of Puerto Rico, promising to visit the hurricane-ravaged island on Tuesday, the day before he travels to Las Vegas.
The week will pose the greatest test yet of whether a president who plays to America’s divisions can also appeal to its sense of national unity, whether it is binding the wounds left by a rampaging gunman or the wreckage left by a deadly hurricane.
Whether Mr. Trump can sustain his empathetic tone over what promise to be two emotional, exhausting days also is an open question — particularly as critics attack his position on gun laws, or if he faces further criticism from local officials in Puerto Rico over the slow-to-start relief effort there. On Monday afternoon, some of the president’s aides were urging him to put off the trip to Puerto Rico because they worried that he could be set off by protests.
Another major question on unity confronts Puerto Rico and its own government, NYT’s Richard Fausset reports separately. Islanders have a new sense of nosotros (“we”) in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as the devastation has made everyone equal in misery. That nosotros will not last long if the territorial government doesn’t start making strides on its responsibilities, a local academic tells Fausset:
Diana Lopez Sotomayor, a professor of archaeology and anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras Campus, is among those who fear that the social fabric may begin to fray if residents are forced to deal with months without reliable employment, food and energy.
“There is a new feeling in Puerto Rico, a new ‘nosotros’,” she said, referring to a new sense of we. “More people in the street are saying, ‘Buenos Dias, Como estas?’ You’re in a queue for hours, and of course you become friends. In the same lines are rich and poor. It’s breaking the barriers of class.”
However, she added, “When people are starving they will get violent. If things don’t get better the new ‘nosotros’ is going to break down.”
Trump has insisted that the federal government is doing everything in its power, but that the institutions of Puerto Rico have to step up as well. Fausset corroborates this issue, noting Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s announcement yesterday that only 30% of its first responders have reported for duty. That may be understandable, as they are also victims of the hurricane, but the need to establish order and open lines of logistical communication are paramount. The US military can’t do that on its own for both legal and practical reasons, especially the latter.
Glenn Reynolds pointed out that fact in his USA Today column, while also noting that the humanitarian situation is very bad and getting worse by the day:
Things are pretty bad in Puerto Rico. As Terry Teachout commented, the situation — no electricity, limited transportation, shortages of food and water — is what the United States would look like after a successful North Korean electro-magnetic pulse attack on our grid.
This has led to the usual political finger-pointing. The press has been trying to make every hurricane this year into “Trump’s Katrina,” for obvious reasons, but the problem here isn’t presidential. …
Relief officials on the island say that aid is getting to the ports now, but the problem is distribution, with most truck drivers unable to get to work because of the destruction.
“It’s a lack of drivers for the transport trucks, the 18-wheelers,” Col. Michael Valle, who is in charge of the Hurricane Maria relief efforts, told The Huffington Post. “There are ships full of supplies, backed up in the ports, waiting to have a vehicle to unload into. However, only 20% of the truck drivers show up to work. These are private citizens in Puerto Rico, paid by companies that are contracted by the government.”
Trump wants to cut through that and get some commitments from the local governments for assistance. If he can succeed in that endeavor, then the unity messages will keep flowing. Otherwise, expect a return to the barbed and partisan status quo ante very soon.