Over the course of the weekend, President Donald Trump grew increasingly irritated as media coverage portrayed him as inattentive to the devastation on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. And so, he engaged in a now standard form of online catharsis: He sent out a series of off-key tweets in which he seemed to blame the hurricane-ravaged island for its own fate.
When it was all done, Trump came off looking not only inattentive towards Puerto Rico’s plight but also unconcerned. The insecurity that he felt about that earlier coverage has only intensified, aides and confidants say, with some conceding that the president has himself to blame.
Trump’s frustration is born from the fact that, contrary to public perception, he had not ignored the battering Hurricane Maria gave Puerto Rico. Trump devoted a portion of his Thursday press conference at the United Nations with Ukraine’s president to the situation on the island. On Friday, the White House released a readout of the president’s call with Puerto Rico’s governor.
But Trump overshadowed those moments with pomp and controversy. During a Friday evening at a political rally in Alabama, he attacked the National Football League and players who knelt during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice. That was followed by an inordinate number of his tweets in which he continued to go after the NFL, its owners, and the league’s players. All told, between Saturday and early Monday, Trump tweeted angrily about sports 17 times and not once about Puerto Rico.
When @realDonaldTrump finally turned his attention to the island on Monday evening, the results were puzzling for many observers, including some in the White House.
“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” the president tweeted. “It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars…owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities - and doing well. #FEMA.”
Two sources close to the president, one inside and one outside of the White House, told The Daily Beast that Trump’s tweets were in response to images and news coverage he saw of a Puerto Rico over the weekend, during which he became increasingly aware of the near-constant cable-news commentary that painted him as disinterested. This convinced him that he “had to tweet about” it, according to a senior White House official.
The initial objective was to use Twitter to bring attention to the dire situation. But the outcome came off as neither comforting nor compassionate.
A close Trump confidant assured The Daily Beast the president was not trying to be insensitive. The president was merely pointing out the island’s infrastructure and money “owed to Wall Street” as a way to demonstrate his knowledge of the subject, and thus prove he’s been following the details of the crisis. That is “just how he communicates,” the source said.
Few outside the president’s inner circle saw it that way.
Prior to this week, Trump had earned plaudits and solid poll numbers for his response to Hurricane’s Harvey and Irma, during which he seemed monomaniacally focused on not being tarred as George W. Bush had been after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. But self-inflicted public relations catastrophes have been a reoccurring problem for the president. And Puerto Rico has proved to be no exception. Trump’s NFL-related feuds drew attention from any effort he was making to project attentiveness.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that the perception of Trump as detached from the devastation in Puerto Rico “is a BS story of media desperately trying to find reasons to attack the president.”
Trump, she continued, “has been very engaged throughout—he has been in daily contact with his team, receiving regular briefings and empowering his cabinet to do all that is possible under the federal government.” Any reporting to the contrary, she said, is “completely untrue.”
At the UN press conference, Trump did address the crisis, noting that his homeland security adviser Tom Bossert was with him in the room and relaying that they had been discussing relief efforts. In his call with the governors of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands the next day, Trump received a damage assessment and pledged support and help, according to a White House read out.
But Trump also seemed distracted at times, and not just when on social media. At a meeting with conservative activists at the White House on Monday night, the president held court on a variety of largely domestic topics. Over beef wellington and mixed vegetables, apple pie à la Mode with one scoop of ice cream, the group discussed Obamacare, tax reform, regulatory rollback and religious freedom. They also discussed the hot-button culture wars of the day, prodding Trump about his NFL feud. The president noted the positive reaction he believe he had received. From there, talk drifted towards a defense of maintaining statues honoring Confederate soldiers—a defense Trump had first mounted following the white nationalist protest and violence in Charlottesville.
“He talked generally about how society is having all of these conversations and there are just certain things that should be sacred,” said a source familiar with the discussion. “And he felt like on both those topics [the NFL and the statues] our American history is important and we should be careful about discarding it.”
Puerto Rico was not a central part of the conversation; or really a part at all. If it was mentioned by the president at dinner, it was only at glancing, said the source.
Inside the administration, the conviction is shared that the press has been too eager to portray Trump as inattentive to Puerto Rico. But it’s also clear that they are fearful that the perception has taken firm root. On Tuesday, the White House blasted out photos of the president being briefed on the island’s recovery, while Trump’s campaign arm texted links to charitable organizations from the president’s campaign arm.
“Pretending like Twitter is all that matters is the most beltway of beltway takes,” one senior official quipped before conceding that Trump hadn’t helped matters. “FEMA, Navy, the Coast Guard, resources have been and are being mobilized. But you didn’t hear about it over the weekend because POTUS was tweeting about [Colin] Kaepernick.”