On CNN Thursday morning, as Hurricane Florence barrelled toward the Carolina coast, discussion turned to the White House’s response to Hurricane Maria last year -- and President Donald Trump’s praise for that effort the day before. The Category 4 storm caused catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico, crippling its power grid and resulting in an estimated 2,975 deaths, according to a recent study, but Trump had touted the federal response as “an unappreciated great job.”
“We’ve seen two years of the president rewriting history,” anchor Alisyn Camerota noted on CNN. Citing Bob Woodward’s new book and other reports, she posited that many of Trump’s aides “don't think that the president is rooted in reality and that he's often amoral when it comes to decisions like this, like not mentioning the 3,000 victims in Puerto Rico.”
CNN senior political analyst John Avlon agreed, contrasting the president’s sunny tweet about the administration’s success in responding to Hurricane Maria with the reality that there were “nearly 3,000 humans dead.” “And that lack of focus on that fact and the fact there hasn't been an inquest -- an official inquest -- there hasn't been a full lesson learned, is itself a scandal,” he added.
Roughly seven minutes later, the segment appeared to draw an unhinged response from the president, who denied that 3,000 had died in Puerto Rico as a result of the hurricane, baselessly blaming the evidence to the contrary on a conspiracy by Democrats to deny him credit for an effective response.
Trump’s furious tweets had the hallmarks of executive time, the regular phenomenon in which the idle president watches hours of cable news coverage of his presidency and responds on Twitter in near real time. Indeed, in a series of tweets earlier that morning, Trump had made clear that he was planted in front of the television. When the president’s morning tweets seem to come out of left field, the reason is almost always that he’s reacting to what he sees there.
The president’s top aides have struggled to curtail the president’s exposure to cable news, concerned that it affects his mood and that the resulting tweets take the White House off message. As might be expected in a case where Trump is responding in real time to critical media coverage, there’s little apparent strategy or forethought on display with today’s Puerto Rico tweets. Instead, we see the convergence of two of the president’s unsettling but persistent character traits: He is incapable of ignoring perceived slights, and he is a conspiracy theorist. The CNN segment notwithstanding, the deaths of thousands in Puerto Rico has drawn shamelessly little media attention and minimal scrutiny from the Republicans who control Congress. By lashing out on Twitter, the president has now put that tragedy on the national news agenda. His comments are unhinged, baseless nonsense because that’s who he is, the birther president, the guy who goes on 9/11 truther Alex Jones’ show and praises his “amazing” reputation.
“[H]e's got to guard against his natural impulse, which is to puff himself up while other people are in pain,” Avlon said this morning. The problem is that the president is little more than a sum of those impulses, and expecting rational, measured behavior is hoping for the impossible. Minutes later, he proved it.