“We study leaders,” Dr. Leonard Marcus told me this week. He’s the co-founder of the Ivy League school’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, which trains policymakers and public officials in emergency planning. “We take what we learn from leaders, and teach new leaders for future events.” And Marcus is learning a lot from President Donald Trump’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico—mainly, what not to do during a disaster of this magnitude.
Lesson number one: “Don’t self-congratulate when people are suffering.” Marcus said that was the clear lesson from last week, after Trump boasted about the “great job” he was doing in responding to Hurricane Maria’s devastation, and acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke called Puerto Rico a “good news story.” Such comments not only agitate local leaders whom the administration must work with, but can mislead Americans into thinking the crisis isn’t so dire. “You need good situational awareness,” Marcus said. “It is still a life-saving operation in Puerto Rico right now, and while it’s still a life-saving operation, you can’t self-congratulate.”
Lesson number two: “You have to be able to pivot according to the situation, when things are not going according to standard practice.” Marcus said the Trump administration was not proactive enough in anticipating the damage Maria would cause and the resources that would be needed. “If there’s a major emergency coming, the White House can declare an emergency before the event even happens,” Marcus said. “The White House did this for Hurricane Harvey, but there was not a declaration for Hurricane Maria before it hit Puerto Rico.” Knowing that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was already taxed from two very recent hurricanes, Trump could have positioned more Department of Defense resources to respond to Maria after the storm. But he didn’t do that, Marcus noted; Trump used standard operating procedures in a situation that was anything but standard.
Marcus said he’s already incorporating these lessons into his curriculum, so other public leaders don’t make the same mistakes Trump did.