Trump’s Firefighting Advice for Notre-Dame Was Revealing

You won’t hear me defend him often, but President Trump is being unjustly ridiculed for a tweet he sent out while the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was ablaze. He wrote, “Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!” It wasn’t good advice. As an article in the Agence-France Presse explains, dropping that volume of water on the roof would have been reckless and dangerous, and would quite possibly have collapsed the entire edifice.

Releasing even one load from a Canadair water bomber used to fight forest fires on Notre-Dame would be “the equivalent of dropping three tonnes of concrete at 250 kilometres per hour (155mph)” on the ancient monument.

“It would have been like bowling with the cathedral… the two towers might have fallen.

“It was technically impossible, undoable and most of all would have been utterly useless” to douse the flames from the air, Bernier added.

In fact, dropping a 6,300-litre (1,664-gallon) load from a Canadair water bomber would have put the lives of firefighters and anyone in the area at risk, he added.

“Neighbouring buildings would have been hit by flying blocks of hot stone, and the whole area would have had to be evacuated.”

The reason I’m willing to offer a limited defense of the president is that I had the same thought as I watched the magnificent over 800 year-old masterpiece burn. It seemed clear that the firefighters were losing the battle as the flames spread and the roof and spire collapsed. I naturally sought some solution—something they had not yet tried—that might turn the tide in their favor and help them salvage something for posterity. How could they get more water to the top?

Once it was explained that the weight of the water would have acted like a giant bomb, I thought, “Of course, that was such a dumb idea.” I was glad that I hadn’t verbalized my plan, and I definitely was grateful that I hadn’t memorialized it on Twitter.

Yet, I really wouldn’t have been that embarrassed. After all, I just willingly admitted this to you, so I obviously don’t think you’ll conclude that I’m a bad person. I came up with a truly terrible idea because I wanted to solve a problem that had no obvious solution. My impulse came from a good place. I wanted to be helpful. I definitely didn’t want to crush the firefighters and turn Notre-Dame into a giant grenade of exploding hot stone.

Of course, if I had been in a position of responsibility, I would have first listened to the scientists and firefighting experts who told me my solution was idiotic. I would not have ordered them to drop the water.

I’m not sure that Donald Trump would have heeded their advice. Most of the available evidence and precedent suggests that Trump would not have cared enough about their “expert” analysis to realize his mistake and amend his original recommendation.

The reason I’m willing to defend him in this case is that, for once, his impulsiveness and willingness to share his stream of consciousness without careful reflection was coming from a generous and well-meaning place. He was wrong, but for the right reasons. He wanted to help.

It’s such a rarity to see Trump behave this way that I am more inclined to praise than ridicule him. Yet, it’s also a good example of why his dismissal of expertise and his inclination to make decisions from his “gut” are extraordinarily dangerous tendencies in someone with so much power at his fingertips, and who has so much responsibility for keeping people safe.

The episode makes me simultaneously wonder if he’s not quite as thoroughly rotten as he seems, while concluding more firmly than ever that he cannot continue to be entrusted with the presidency.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com