President Donald Trump may not have a cohesive foreign policy doctrine or any clear ideological underpinning for his domestic agenda.
But he has a firm personal outlook on life that has driven him as a businessman, a candidate and now as president — one he outlined succinctly at an early campaign stop in Dubuque, Iowa, last year. “When people treat me unfairly,” he warned, “I don’t let them forget it.”
Until this weekend, when Trump spent two days engaging in a personal feud with the mayor of San Juan, Trump’s “grudge presidency” had not been tested by a humanitarian crisis in which lives were being lost in real time — and where there was no natural constituency for his explosion of grievances.
“We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico,” the president tweeted Sunday morning from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. “Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates, people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military.”
The message followed a series of tweets on Saturday lashing out at Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, accusing her of “such poor leadership ability” in not getting people on the ground to help.
It was a direct response to her emotional news conference Friday night, in which she begged the president for more help. “We are dying here,” Cruz said, slamming down two thick binders of documentation that San Juan had provided to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to obtain help.
In another world, Cruz’s frustration with the layers of bureaucracy standing between her wiped-out city and food and water delivery might have been in line with Trump’s own interest in cutting regulations and red tape.
The props she used were similar to charts Trump has wielded at news conferences to demonstrate how obtuse the country’s permitting and regulatory process can be. But Cruz’s plea was interpreted by Trump as a personal insult.
“I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge, that is up to the task of saving lives,” she said. “If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency.”
On Twitter, Trump noted that Cruz had been “very complimentary” to him in the past. “They want everything to be done for them,” he complained, “when it should be a community effort.”
To longtime Trump watchers, Trump’s personal reaction to Cruz was par for the course. Last weekend, he revoked an invitation for NBA star Stephen Curry to visit the White House with his team after Curry slighted him by saying he did not want the team to make the trip.
From the perch of the presidency, he has gone after morning show hosts such as Mika Brzezinski; lawmakers from his own party, such as Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain; and members of his own Cabinet — most notably, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He has even taken on the NFL.
Trump’s criticism of Cruz was in line with how he has reacted for years to individuals who have criticized him personally.
“This stretches back to Trump’s earliest days in the New York media ecosystem,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson, a frequent Trump critic. “He’s a creature of the New York Post Page Six culture, and so beefs, grudges, feuds — either real or contrived — came to be associated in his mind with exposure and success. Sadly, now, of course, he’s the commander in chief of the greatest nation on earth.”
This time, White House officials joined in, defending Trump’s feud with the mayor.
“My understanding is that as of yesterday, she had not even been to the FEMA operation center in her own city,” budget director Mick Mulvaney said Sunday morning on CNN, referring to Cruz. “It is unfortunate that the San Juan mayor wants to sort of go against the grain. We’d love to have her on the team as we all pull in the same direction.”
White House communications adviser Mercedes Schlapp posted on Twitter a Daily Caller interview with another Puerto Rican mayor, who accused Cruz of not participating in meetings with FEMA. “Puerto Rican mayors support federal response & POTUS leadership & humanitarian efforts,” she posted on Twitter. “Liberal Media won’t cover other side.”
Cabinet secretaries were dispatched to the Sunday shows to explain, once again, why there was nothing surprising about Trump’s unusual behavior. “When the president gets attacked, he attacks back,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explained on “Meet the Press.” “I think the mayor’s comments were unfair given what the federal government has done.”
Behind the scenes, the White House press office churned out “readouts” of Trump’s calls with other Puerto Rican officials — including a former governor, now working as a lobbyist in Washington, who “thanked the president for his leadership and commitment to the people of Puerto Rico.”
Trump allies shrugged off the weekend back-and-forth. “Donald Trump is never going to attend a sensitivity class,” said Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax and a longtime Trump friend. “I think everyone has figured that one out. I think he’s done a pretty good job handling this storm so far.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Trump saw his response as a political opportunity to demonstrate empathy and get credit for delivering results. On Saturday, he tweeted that he and first lady Melania Trump would be visiting Puerto Rico this week, but otherwise, he was old-school Trump.
“This lack of empathy, of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes during the worst catastrophe the island has seen — the fact that this is what he’s focusing on while people are still not being communicated with, makes me ill,” said Democrat Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the New York City Council and a native of Puerto Rico.
Mark-Viverito visited San Juan last weekend as part of a group of 25 representatives from New York City, she said. She defended Cruz’s criticisms of the government response, based on what she saw.
“I was there last weekend, and I didn’t see any FEMA representation on the ground,” she said. “I went knocking on doors with the mayor — people were not waiting for the government, they were getting in their bulldozers and clearing paths. I didn’t witness any sort of federal representation.”
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