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Trump's Puerto Rico cruelty: Has he no sense of decency?

President's vicious attacks on San Juan's mayor, amid an urgent humanitarian crisis, may be a new low even for him


Heather Digby Parton
October 2, 2017 12:15PM (UTC)

Last Monday, as the catastrophe in Puerto Rico got worse and worse, this is what President Trump was doing:

President Trump last Monday reportedly called Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones four times imploring him not to let his team kneel during the national anthem.

It turns out that Trump thought he had hit on an excellent issue with the NFL protests and was more or less unaware that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were in crisis. The cable news networks hadn't focused on the damage yet and were instead obsessing over Trump's NFL comments, which he saw as a big win for him. According to The Washington Post, it was only when criticism of the federal response started to show up on TV that Trump even really knew there was a crisis.

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As I noted several times last week, things kept getting worse and Trump got ever more manic. The Obamacare repeal-and-replace zombie was knocked out for the time being, although Trump inexplicably insisted that Republicans would have had the votes if not for a senator who was in the hospital. (This was completely false, raising the question once again as to whether Trump suffers from cognitive problems.)

On Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was forced to resign after it was reported that he'd spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on private plane travel for no good reason. (Actually, Trump had reportedly been unhappy with Price since the secretary was seen drinking at Bullfeathers bar on the night last spring when everyone was burning the midnight oil to get the House repeal bill passed. So the private-plane gaffe was just a convenient excuse to get rid of him.)

Throughout all of this, Trump came under withering criticism for his handling of the Puerto Rico crisis, insisting that he was "getting great reviews" from all the officials on the island and explaining more than once that the problem was very difficult because Puerto Rico is “an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water" so trucks couldn't drive there. As of Friday night, Trump was still saying that the job was impossible, but also that he was doing a fabulous job.

On Saturday morning he lost it. He obviously saw footage of the devastation and then heard the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, contradicting his assertions that everything was going swimmingly. He lashed out on Twitter, predictably enough, saying something that will forever be part of his already shameful legacy.

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Even some conservatives were shocked by those insulting comments.

The president continued tweeting all day, complaining that "his people" weren't getting enough credit and rattling off statistics as if they proved something. At various points on Saturday he also brought up the NFL controversy again and even tweeted out a video of people standing for the anthem that turned out to be a year old.

Naturally Trump also began to suggest that the reports coming from the island were "fake news." That's become his stock answer for all criticism, although in this case it made even less sense than usual. Was he actually suggesting that the footage people were seeing on television was staged? This tweet may be the most ridiculous of that series:

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Let's see: Only 5 percent of Puerto Rico has power. There is no internet. Other than that, his claims made perfect sense. Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland, however, were not impressed with his excuses.

Trump was clearly enraged by Cruz and her emotional appeals for help. He kept mentioning how grateful the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, was for everything Trump has done, even calling him "Ricky" at one point. He made a great show of complimenting by name those officials who have shown proper fealty to him during the crisis and made it quite clear that genuflecting to his power is the smart move if they expect results.

On Sunday, he continued to insult the mayor:

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We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military. All buildings now inspected . . .

Of course that's not true. All buildings have not been inspected, and emergency supplies of water, food and medicine have not yet reached all who need them. Nobody knew what he was talking about. Not wishing to jab the hornet's nest, Rosselló very gingerly told CNN that he was "not aware" of such inspections. After all, there are entire areas of the island that nobody's even heard from yet.

Trump didn't mention the mayor by name, but it was clear she is the "politically motivated ingrate" to whom he refers in his tweet. By this time, toadies seeking Trump's favor had taken up the cause. A fellow mayor accused her of not attending FEMA meetings, saying she wants to run for governor. He told the Daily Caller that everything is going just great. Geraldo Rivera of Fox News, no doubt knowing that Trump would see him, confronted the mayor himself, saying, "I don't see people dying," which proves nothing but will make the president happy.

There's no point in asking why Trump couldn't be the bigger man and not insult and degrade the mayor of a stricken city facing an urgent humanitarian crisis. We know he can't do that. But there is a method to his madness, the same method all bullies use: He's using Cruz as an example for others. If you want his support, you'll think twice about criticizing him.

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Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said it plainly on "Meet the Press," when asked by Chuck Todd why the president would go after Cruz under these trying circumstances: "When the president gets attacked, he attacks back."

What we are watching unfold in Puerto Rico has strong echoes of colonial despotism, with demands that the natives pay proper respect to the crown. Trump isn't a king, but he is an authoritarian by temperament and demands that he be treated like one. There are plenty of people who are willing to play the role of courtier and sycophant, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, who proclaimed, "His heart's in the right place," when asked if he thought Trump was bringing people together. Ryan knows he isn't. It's just that he's seen how Trump publicly humiliated Mitch McConnell and got the message loud and clear.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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