Trump’s Embarrassing, Unconstitutional Response to Puerto Rico

The president keeps pretending that he only needs to represent red states, not all Americans.

Donald Trump unloaded a tweetstorm this morning about Puerto Rico’s continuing recovery after Hurricane Maria that managed to appall even after all these months of being appalled by what this president is willing to say.

I’m not going to talk about how racist it is. Many writers of color—who are smarter than I am and more authoritative than I am on matters of white supremacy—are going to talk about it. I’ll defer to them, and a lot of other white people should too.

What I want to talk about is the obligation of the office of the presidency—to defend and protect not only the U.S. Constitution, but every single American’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Puerto Ricans are indeed U.S. citizens.)

More precisely, I want to talk about why the office of the president is supposed to do those things. To that end, let’s remember the works of John Locke, the English philosopher who left an indelible mark on the Founders’ thinking, especially Thomas Jefferson’s.

Locke believed all of us are born free and equal, and that governments must be constituted to protect those natural rights. The Founders added Hobbes and Montesquieu to conclude that government’s goal is also to protect the weak from the strong. Part of its mandate is to defend against a state of nature.

I presume neither the Enlightenment philosophers nor the Founders were thinking about cataclysmic hurricanes when they pondered the need for government to protect against a state of nature, but that’s surely the kind of thinking we need now that much of Puerto Rico remains without power and without adequate supplies of food and water. Hurricane Maria destroyed the island’s infrastructure as well as its agriculture—Puerto Rico is going to need huge investments.

Yet this morning, the president said in so many words that Puerto Rico was a disaster before the hurricanes hit, and that the federal government can’t stay to provide aid forever. Puerto Rico, Trump implied, will have to take care of itself.

Like I said, I’m not going to talk about the white supremacy of his tweetstorm. My point is the president is saying the natural rights of people born free and equal are like a buffet. The government can pick and choose whose rights to protect, and throw away the rest.

And my point is he’s saying this out loud, an important nuance. Trump is not the first or last president to chafe at the idea of serving Americans who despise him personally and politically. This is not to say presidents should not give special attention to their supporters and allies. But no president in my lifetime has actually said this in public. That matters, because what Trump says in public influences what he’s willing to accept in terms of policy outcomes.

Puerto Rico isn’t alone. The AP reported Wednesday some 3,500 homes and buildings have been consumed by wildfire in the Napa Valley. The conflagration comes after long summer months, during which fires raged in California. Yet the president has said nothing.

This is a big deal and it can’t be overstated. Most people are going to focus on the president’s moral obligation to help. But considering the damage in Puerto Rico and California, the need for recovery goes beyond morals. Trump is not the president of only red states. He has a constitutional obligation to “preserve, protect and defend.”

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.