Jules Witcover: Trump’s credibility not standing up well to national tragedies
WASHINGTON — In politics as in salesmanship, credibility is said to be the essential element. Donald Trump, for all his transparent misrepresentations, lies and exaggerations, still manages to hold onto it with millions of his supporters.
Thus, on one hand he showed no hesitation in giving the overwhelmed mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, a poor rating in dealing with Hurricane Maria. Then, on the other, he waxed somberly about the “pure evil” of the madman who gunned down 59 people from the windows of his room in a luxury hotel in Las Vegas.
Almost a week passed before he went to Puerto Rico, after accusing Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto of “poor leadership” in the relief effort, saying she and other islanders “want everything done for them,” and that “Fake News” CNN and NBC “went out of their way” to get her “to disparage our great first responders as a way to ‘get Trump.’ “
He claimed that “politically motivated ingrates” had influenced her to criticize the federal relief effort, including “our great military” engaged in it. Meanwhile, Mayor Cruz focused on the dire plight of her constituents in San Juan and other islanders.
“We are dying here,” she lamented, defending her personal response. “My job is to make life better for people, and you cannot make life better if you’re in a helicopter. You can’t make life better for them if you can’t touch them.”
As for Trump, he spent most of the following week in Washington and the weekend at one of his golf clubs in New Jersey before making it to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, only then saying Cruz had “come back a long way” in her response to Maria.
Upon the news of the shooting mayhem in Las Vegas, he scheduled a trip there Wednesday. In his immediate denunciation of the indiscriminate shootings, he made no reference to a need for stronger laws to curb gun violence.
Earlier, he had reminded the National Rifle Association that it had “a true friend” in the White House in defense of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Shortly after the Las Vegas mayhem, with his wife Melania at his side, having throughout his presidential campaign repeatedly disparaged Mexicans and other immigrants, women and minorities, he oozed with sincerity, observing:
“Our unity cannot be shattered by evil; our bonds cannot be broken by violence. We call upon the bonds that unite us: our faith, our family, and our shared our shared values. We call upon the bonds of citizenship, the ties of community and the comfort of our common humanity.”
After praising the Las Vegas first responders, Trump said of those grieving for the 59 people killed and hundreds wounded: “We cannot fathom their pain, we cannot imagine their loss.”
The remarks brought to mind the late, well-remembered GOP dirty-tricks operative Lee Atwater, who was credited with the axiom: “If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.” Trump has proved its validity first in the snake-oil salesmanship that brought him the Republican nomination last year and now in his loose adherence to the truth in many ways as president.
The same could be said, perhaps of a lesser degree, of key Republican congressional figures such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who offered condolences to the bereaved.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told inquiring reporters of Trump’s silence on the gun violence in Las Vegas that there was “a difference between being a candidate and being the president” and the tragedy was not the place “for a political debate.”
But Democatic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who earlier as a House member represented the district containing the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six educators were murdered in a gun rampage, argued:
“This must stop. It is positively infuriating that my colleagues in Congress are so afraid of the gun industry that they pretend there aren’t public police responses to this epidemic. … The thoughts and prayers are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference. It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something.”
Not to mention Donald Trump, whose professed sincerity could be reinforced by finally doing the same, but he won’t.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.