Last week, the public got a rare glimpse at the art of spinning a federal natural disaster response. On Friday, Bloomberg reporter Christopher Flavelle published excerpts from internal Pentagon emails he accidentally received, in which officials at the Defense Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency discussed their press strategy for the government’s flailing relief effort in Puerto Rico. Flavelle was included on these messages for five days, despite his repeatedly alerting Pentagon officials of their error. Ultimately, he decided to publish them, noting that they offered “a glimpse into the federal government’s struggle to convince the public that the response effort was going well.”
The emails also showed how public affairs officers had to adapt each day to deal with President Donald Trump’s blustery, unpredictable rhetoric. “Much of recent media coverage is focused on the dialogue between POTUS and San Juan’s mayor,” read one advisory dated September 30, after Trump publicly attacked San Juan’s mayor on Twitter. “Many are criticizing POTUS’ lack of empathy for PR’s hardship. The public’s perception of U.S. Government continues to be negative as the response in PR is seen as too slow.” One day later, after Trump called critics of the disaster response “politically motivated ingrates,” an advisory went out noting that “the perception of [government] response continues to be negative.” Spokespeople were recommended to say, “I am very proud of our DOD forces,” while admitting that “there are some challenges to work through.”
I know this not only from Flavelle’s story, but because I also received the emails (as did Miami Herald journalist Jim Wyss, who didn’t return my request for comment). The first email was on September 28, after I spoke with a DOD communications officer to ask exactly when they received a formal request for aid; how long did it took for the military to deploy to Puerto Rico; and why helicopters weren’t being deployed to certain unreachable areas. I didn’t get concrete answers to all of those questions, but I did get included on the private Pentagon listserv.
John Cornielo, deputy director of public affairs for the U.S. Northern Command, later told me this was an honest mistake; I had asked to be added to the press list, and was added to the wrong one. He also disagreed that the agency was engaging in spin. “I wouldn’t say we’re putting on a positive response, I would say we’re telling it as accurately as we can—positive, negative, and neutral,” he said. “Clearly, things down there are not going well. But there are also things that are improving on an everyday basis, and those are important stories to tell as well.”
There’s an ongoing debate about who’s responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. Some say the military has been too slow, while others blame the Puerto Rican government is responsible. But in at least one respect, there’s no dispute: The Trump administration’s public relations have been a debacle, as the president and his political appointees issue dishonest statements and career public servants struggle to keep the focus on the federal response. This communications catastrophe is much more than just a professional annoyance for journalists; it’s having a tangible impact on mainland politics and, even worse, on the welfare of Puerto Ricans.
In Puerto Rico right now, 86 percent of the 3.4 million residents don’t have electricity. There are shortages of food and medicine. Water is so scarce that some people are drinking from toxic Superfund sites. And there’s an environmental crisis unfolding, too, as raw sewage pours into rivers and reservoirs. But on Friday, Trump insisted otherwise. “They’re all healing,” he said. “Their states and territories are healing and they are healing rapidly.”
Senior officials have been in denial, too. Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke called Hurricane Maria “a good news story.” (“When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story,” said an outraged San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. “This is a people-are-dying story.”) In an email to all White House staff earlier this month, Department of Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert reportedly pledged “to turn the corner on our public communications,” insisting, “The storm caused these problems, not our response to it.” And rather than deny the truth, some officials would rather simply erase it: FEMA “removed information from its website documenting how much of the island of Puerto Rico still lacked power or access to drinking water,” the Washington Post reported.
This strategy hasn’t proven very convincing to the press or the broader public. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,000 adults from October 4-8 found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that Puerto Ricans “are not yet getting the help they need.” But to Republicans, Trump is doing a swell job: 74 percent believe the federal government is doing enough to help, and 75 percent say the response speed has been just right. That’s the real danger of the administration’s denial. Republicans have unified control of the government; the relief effort in Puerto Rico, from the emergency responders on the ground to the additional funds that FEMA needs, is largely dependent on the White House and Congress. If Republican constituents truly believe that Puerto Ricans are “all healing,” their elected officials face no pressure to improve what is widely considered a poor federal response.
Until that response is improved, millions of Americans in Puerto Rico will suffer needlessly. For some, simply surviving is the main challenge—finding enough food and potable water, and some cases maintaining a steady supply of critical medications. In other cases, the struggle is mental. “We know how to eat from the earth,” Neil Delgado, a Puerto Rican who fled to Florida, told the Washington Post. “The problem now is psychological. Everyone is stressed. They’re in kind of a depression. And it’s going to get worse.” Some feel that they cannot express their full outrage at Trump because of their dependence on him. “The majority of people here feel [angry],” San Juan resident Rachel Cruz told the Associated Press, “but we have to be more balanced because we need help.” Surely, it does not help that their president denies that they’re even suffering.
The only silver lining here is that Puerto Ricans, faced with the Trump administration’s untruths, are determined to do something about it politically. Those living on the island do not have the right to vote, but Puerto Ricans living in Florida do. One million residents of Florida are of Puerto Rican descent, and according to the Post, more than 100,000 living on the island may relocate to Florida—the most populous swing state in America—because of the impacts of the storm. “All politics is about motivation,” Anthony Suarez, the first Puerto Rican member of the Florida House, told the Post. “And at this point, the Hispanic community here is extremely motivated against Trump.”