×

Don’t assume Puerto Rico’s outrage will permanently damage Trump’s reputation

  • President Trump clearly botched handling the crisis in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
  • However, crisis-management expert Eric Dezenhall says he's learned to suspend the rules of crisis management when it comes to Trump.
  • Don't expect Puerto Rico's outrage over Trump's handling of the crisis to permanently damage Trumps reputation.
President Donald Trump tosses rolls of paper towels to people at a hurricane relief distribution center at Calvary Chapel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 3, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
President Donald Trump tosses rolls of paper towels to people at a hurricane relief distribution center at Calvary Chapel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 3, 2017.

Presidents are often criticized for their handling of natural disasters, but after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit Houston and Florida, Donald Trump's administration received very little blame. His luck ran out, however, after Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico.

In the aftermaths of Harvey and Irma, the news was replete with visuals of rescue activity, including food distribution and local officials praising the support they were getting from the federal government. By contrast, with Puerto Rico, the relief optics have been terrible — mostly what we see are scenes of utter despair without signs of progress to balance them out. It took more than a week for Trump to appoint a Pentagon general to supervise relief efforts.

Furthermore, the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, has been actively criticizing Trump — and Trump, who cannot abide criticism, has consequently engaged in a war of words with her. This tit-for-tat trade-off has exacerbated an already bad situation with a volatile combination of victim-blaming and cringe-worthy dismissals (such as Trump's tweet that Puerto Ricans "want everything to be done for them").


This stance follows Trump's longstanding narrative that he has been successful in life solely due to his genius (as opposed to having inherited a business empire that he nearly destroyed) and that the less fortunate merit their poor status because of their own missteps. Trump's petulance in mentioning that Mayor Cruz had initially been "complimentary" of him but had later changed her tune did nothing to disabuse the public that, to him, even natural disasters are little more than a slap fight over an act of disrespect on the playground.

Trump's feud with Mayor Cruz is not the work of a healer-in-chief. Further, his ham-fisted rhetoric about Puerto Rico "throwing our budget out of whack" and being an island "surrounded by big water" suggested that its inhabitants were abstractions (rather than U.S. citizens) – and pains-in-the-neck to boot. Trump's suggestion that Puerto Ricans should be "proud" that more people didn't die on their island as compared to Katrina is a misguided humble-brag that he has been doing a much better job managing the crisis than he had been given credit for. Then, there he was, tossing out paper towels into a crowd like they were T-shirts at a baseball game, which sent Twitter and the media into a tailspin of criticism about how tone-deaf he was. (Can't he just hug people like a normal president?)

So, what are the political consequences for Trump? The answer is complicated. The thing about Trump's antics is that they spike and then vanish from public consciousness very quickly. The outrage of today is barely a memory tomorrow. Trump has been a karma-immune political figure, which means that crisis managers must suspend the traditional laws of physics, at least for the immediate future. What we don't know is how millions of Hispanic and Latino voters, many of whom vote Republican, will feel about Trump's combative and dismissive treatment of a population they either belong to or identify with. Given Trump's lucky history, it's never safe to assume that he will pay a terrible political price like the one that Bush 42 paid for his handling of Katrina.

Commentary by Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis-management firm in Washington, DC. He was an aide in the Reagan White House Communications Office and is also the author of "Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal." Follow him on Twitter @EricDezenhall.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.