West Wing aides perfect a Trump survival skill: Ignoring the tweets

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump speaks with Puerto Rico’s governor after Hurricane Maria. On Thursday, the president peddled a false conspiracy theory that “Democrats” inflated the official death toll from the storm to smear his image. | Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

After the president peddled a conspiracy theory about the death toll from Hurricane Maria, White House officials went on as though he’d said nothing at all.

President Donald Trump minimized the pain and suffering of more than 3 million American citizens in Puerto Rico in a pair of tweets Thursday morning – and White House aides acted like it wasn’t their problem.

Trump’s broadside, in which he peddled a false conspiracy theory that “Democrats” inflated the official death toll from Hurricane Maria to smear his image, was met largely with silence from his White House advisers. Most officials and Trump allies refused to comment on the record, and there was little effort to mount a major defense of the statement.

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Late Thursday, after ignoring Trump’s comments for more than 10 hours, the White House issued a statement.

“As the President said, every death from Hurricane Maria is a horror,” spokesman Hogan Gidley said, adding that “President Trump was responding to the liberal media and the San Juan Mayor who sadly, have tried to exploit the devastation by pushing out a constant stream of misinformation and false accusations.”

Three Republicans close to the White House said Trump’s tweets reflected his spiraling frustration with the media narrative that the federal government’s Maria response was a failure. They said that the president himself was the driving force behind the message, noting that it was not echoed by other White House officials or other Republican leaders.

The disconnect reinforced the growing sense in the West Wing that, after 20 months of failed efforts to corral the president, it’s best to let the president – who has long viewed himself as his best spokesman, strategist and negotiator – say what he wants to say and move on.

White House aides are counting on news coverage of Hurricane Florence, which threatens to devastate parts of the East Coast, to shift attention away from Trump’s Maria claims, according to a Republican familiar with Trump’s thinking. It “will dominate the news cycle,” this person predicted.

In the interim, aides worked to counter the perception that Trump is distracted, making the case that he is focused on preparation for Hurricane Florence, which is barreling toward the Southeastern coastline. The White House sent reporters frequent updates on the administration’s efforts, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders releasing a statement noting Trump spoke with North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis (R) and the mayor of Wilmington, N.C., about the storm.

Despite the White House’s refusal to engage, there were signs that even some of Trump’s strongest supporters were surprised by how far the president went in his Thursday tweets. Asked about the president’s comments, one former administration official said simply, “Surreal.”

Trump has a long history of pushing conspiracy theories, from linking vaccines to autism to asserting that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. And perhaps more than any president in modern history, Trump has consistently and publicly questioned the government that he now oversees.

He has falsely insisted that “millions” of people voted illegally in the 2016 election. During the presidential campaign, he called the Labor Department’s employment numbers “one of the biggest hoaxes in American modern politics.” And he has repeatedly questioned federal intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to boost his candidacy.

Aides have repeatedly brushed off his claims. At a briefing on Monday, hours after Trump made an incorrect claim about record GDP growth on Twitter, Council of Economic Advisers chairman Kevin Hassett said from the White House briefing room podium: “I’m not the chairman of the “Council of Twitter Advisors.’”

Trump’s missives about Maria came after days of complaints about his unfair treatment after last year’s devastating storm, which along with killing thousands of people left much of the island of Puerto Rico without power for months.

Trump praised his administration this week for its response to the devastating 2017 storm, calling it an “incredible, unsung success” — comments that garnered fierce backlash from Puerto Rican officials and mainland Democrats as insensitive. Though initial estimates for the death toll from the storm and its aftermath hovered at 64, a comprehensive study released this summer raised the number to nearly 3,000.

“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…” Trump tweeted Thursday morning. “…..This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”

The study was conducted by researchers at George Washington University and was requested by the Puerto Rican government. The study found nearly 1,300 people died in September and October — the months of the storm — alone, and put the total figure toll at 2,975 excess deaths.

Trump’s tweets served to draw even more attention to the federal government’s flawed response to Maria as the White House and agencies are grappling with Hurricane Florence.

It was unclear which Democrats the president was referring to, though he has openly feuded with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a member of Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party, over the federal government’s hurricane response.

People close to the president said Trump remains furious at Cruz, who he blames for magnifying the narrative that the federal government failed to adequately respond to the disaster. For Trump, who sees everything through the lens of politics, Cruz’s criticism is emblematic of what he sees as a broader campaign by Democrats to undermine his presidency.

Trump is also fixated on what he was told when he visited Puerto Rico in October 2017, after the hurricane hit. “What is your death count as of this moment, 17?” he asked Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who responded that there were 16 certified deaths at the time. Trump was pleased with the number. “You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people,” he said comparing the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Trump administration officials have reinforced the idea that the federal response was a success. “The bottom line is that I know and they know that we kept Puerto Rico from total collapse as a result of Maria,” FEMA administrator Brock Long said earlier this week in an interview on MSNBC.

But Puerto Ricans and others who experienced the fallout from the hurricane firsthand say they’ve seen the deadly consequences of a lack of electricity, clean water and infrastructure, which lingered in many parts of the country for months.

“[T]he lack of timely outside resources (personnel, generators, electric repair crews) created or extended the conditions that provoked indirect deaths, such as kidney failure due to lack of power for dialysis equipment for example,” said Kenneth McClintock, a former secretary of state of Puerto Rico who was deeply involved in recovery efforts, in a text message.

“The lesson that those who admit to their mistakes (POTUS excluded) learned? Time kills.”

One year later, Puerto Rico is still grappling with the fallout from the hurricane. Rosselló, a member of the island’s New Progressive Party who worked closely with Trump in the aftermath of the storm, released a statement late Tuesday, saying much of the recovery work on the island remains unfinished.

Rosselló, in a video posted on Facebook in Spanish on Thursday, criticized Trump’s remarks.

“The victims of Puerto Rico and the people of Puerto Rico in general, don’t deserve to have their pain questioned,” he said, adding, “I ask the president of the United States that all the agencies invest the necessary resources to keep working in favor of the people of Puerto Rico.”

Rosselló also stood by his decision to use the figures from the study as Puerto Rico’s official death toll. “I am confident the process was carried out adequately,” he said.

Some Florida Republicans unloaded on Trump over his tweets. “Everything is so personal for him and he just wants to always spin a good story, but using the deaths of Puerto Rican hurricane victims might be a new low, and boy, that’s saying something,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is not seeking reelection, told reporters. Thousands of Puerto Ricans flocked to Florida after Hurricane Maria.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has been distancing himself from Trump during his Senate campaign, publicly rebuked the president on Thursday. “I disagree with @POTUS– an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed. I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand. The loss of any life is tragic; the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart wrenching. I’ll continue to help PR,” he tweeted.

Trump’s incendiary tweets came as House Republicans were meeting Thursday morning to discuss midterm strategy, which includes a laser-like focus on the economy. Some in the GOP worry that Trump’s fixation on Puerto Rico could distract from that message.

Asked about the tweets, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said, “I have no reason to dispute those numbers. Those are just the facts of what happens when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated place like an island.”

Mainland Democrats quickly criticized the president’s comments on Twitter. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused Republicans of “shielding” the president’s “insulting behavior from accountability.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) called Trump’s comments “simply delusional.”

“Only in the President’s mind could he give himself an A-plus,” Gutierrez said. “Only in the President’s mind could we go a year without an apology to the American people for his incompetence in managing a crisis where 3,000 people died. And now he denies that they are dead.”

The San Juan mayor was quick to fire off a string of condemnations on Twitter. “Damn it: this is NOT about politics this was always about SAVING LIVES,” Cruz tweeted Thursday morning.

Trump’s comments on Maria come as he asserts his administration’s proactive preparation for Hurricane Florence. The president tweeted a video of himself on Wednesday in the Rose Garden assuring residents in Florence’s path that the government is fully prepared for the storm and urging people to evacuate the area. His campaign also canceled two rallies in Missouri and Mississippi to concentrate on storm preparation.

Trump has also sought to shift the blame for his administration’s sluggish response to last year’s massive storm onto Puerto Rico’s leadership and poor infrastructure.

“We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.

Hurricane Maria caused widespread devastation and long-term damage to the island of 3 million residents. Many Puerto Ricans lacked access to power, water and healthcare after the storm, leading to thousands of deaths, and local officials complained that the federal government did not appropriately respond to residents’ urgent needs.

The Trump administration was also criticized for responding at times considerably more quickly to relief needs on the mainland than in Puerto Rico. Trump himself was at the center of several controversial moments in the aftermath of the storm, including him chucking paper towels at a relief shelter and telling Puerto Ricans they didn’t experience a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina.

Tanya Snyder, Kyle Cheney, Colin Wilhelm and Jesus Rodriguez contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the study on the death toll was requested by the Puerto Rican government.

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