Washington • President Trump awarded himself a 10 out of 10 score two months ago for his response to Hurricane Maria, which leveled Puerto Rico.
“If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died,” Trump said as he toured Puerto Rico in October. “What is your death count, as of this moment — 17?”
“Sixteen certified,” the governor of Puerto Rico replied.
“Sixteen versus literally thousands of people,” Trump said. “You can be very proud.”
How proud we are now.
Last week, we learned the truth. Some 1,065 more Puerto Ricans died in September and October of this year than in previous years, almost certainly storm-related deaths, according to the Center for Investigative Journalism. When all is tallied, the destruction in Puerto Rico will be very much on par with what Trump considers “a real catastrophe like Katrina,” which killed about 1,800.
Incredibly, a large portion of the island remains without power — three months after the storm. It was reported last week that power may not be fully restored until May. Puerto Ricans — American citizens — are still awaiting tarps and temporary roofs to shelter them after an untold number of homes were destroyed.
A new report from Refugees International said, “Thousands of people still lack sustainable access to potable water and electricity and dry, safe places to sleep.” The group faulted the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “bureaucratic and opaque assistance process” for leaving survivors with “enormous challenges.”
This, in the United States of America, in 2017. Ten out of 10, Mr. President. A-plus for you!
In October, when Trump was tossing “beautiful, soft” rolls of paper towels at Puerto Ricans, he offered lavish promises of aid and said Wall Street lenders were “going to say goodbye” to Puerto Rico’s $72 billion debt. But the debt was not written off, and disaster-relief aid has been inadequate and piecemeal. Now, Trump and congressional Republicans are hitting Puerto Rico with an additional, man-made catastrophe.
The GOP tax bill, which Trump celebrated last week, treats Puerto Rico as a foreign country, imposing a 12.5 percent tax on the income that companies there receive from intellectual property — a big hit to its crucial pharmaceutical and medical-device sector. Rather than give Puerto Rico special tax treatment, which it urgently needs, Trump and his congressional allies gave employers a powerful reason to move jobs off the island.
You might recognize this pattern, even if you don’t care about Puerto Rico and the suffering of the more than 3 million Americans there. Trump comes in with razzle-dazzle and self-congratulation, promising great things to come. Then, when the cameras are off, comes the quiet collapse.
The prototype is the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. In April 1990, it opened with much fanfare as the world’s largest casino-hotel complex. Six months later, it defaulted on payments. Nine months after that, it filed for bankruptcy.
Now this happens on a world scale. Trump promises an easy peace in the Middle East but winds up setting off a new wave of violence. He promises a tax cut for the middle class and winds up with a giveaway to corporations and millionaires. He promises to improve upon Obamacare but ravages the program with no replacement.
In business, when Trump attended the ribbon-cutting and then moved on while deals went south, people lost their investments.
But when the United States walks away from promises, people lose rather more.
Nearly a million low-income Puerto Ricans are in danger of losing health care early in the new year because the territory’s Medicaid program will soon be unable to pay providers. Federal law restricts Medicaid reimbursements for Puerto Rico to not-quite 20 percent, about a quarter of what it would get if it were a state. Puerto Rico’s leaders have called for a few billion dollars to avert this latest crisis, but the request went unanswered as Congress rushed to complete the tax cut.
Puerto Rico’s (Democratic) governor, Ricardo Rossello, made a dumb mistake in October when, appealing to Trump’s vanity, he praised the president’s hurricane response. That gave Trump cover to do nothing for Puerto Rico. Now Rossello has apparently realized his mistake, and, in an interview with Politico last week, he vowed to mobilize the more than 5 million Puerto Ricans living in the mainland United States. That includes hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens fleeing Puerto Rico since Maria.
They are eligible to vote, in 2018 and 2020. One suspects they might award Trump something less than the 10 out of 10 he gives himself.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.