Maybe this picture is unfair to Trump without context. After all, the relief event was just a fragment of the administration's involvement in the disaster response, and the people in the room applauded the president for the moment. But given the context of this answer – and its comparison with the response to Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Gulf Coast just weeks before Maria – this gaffe is a useful distillation. The response from the federal government was late and random. Securing essential supplies and restoring lines of communication on the island took weeks, amid a cloud of ambivalence and ineptitude emanating from the White House. "It's an island surrounded by water, great waters and sea water," Trump said in a speech that was meant to excuse the lack of federal action. Puerto Rico is an island, but it is only about 1,000 miles from the American continent. The president travels about the same distance during his frequent trips to Mar-a-Lago.
We now know that hundreds, if not thousands, of lives have been lost due to the chaotic and ineffective response of the federal government. Trump's reaction to these deaths testifies to an underlying will that goes beyond nonchalance: he denied the death of 3,000 Puerto Ricans. For families in mourning for a diaspora marked by colonialist malevolence, it must be remembered that there is an official denial from the US government that their pain exists.
Presidents are judged and their legacies are forged at times when their ambitions truly reflected the impressive power and accountability of the office – or missed the opportunity. John F. Kennedy looked into the void of space and wanted Americans to do the hard work to get there. Abraham Lincoln defied the very founders of the country by proclaiming the emancipation of slaves. Franklin D. Roosevelt fought against fear itself as he sought to transform the country and the government to fight the Great Depression. And, in 2017, Donald Trump looked into the eyes of the most deadly hurricane for a century and threw away paper towels.
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