The ‘high crime’ of aban­don­ing Puerto Rico

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTON FORUM - eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­ EU­GENE ROBIN­SON

More than 80 per­cent of Puerto Rico is still in the dark, more than a third of its res­i­dents still have no clean drink­ing water, much of the is­land’s in­fra­struc­ture still lies in ru­ins — and Pres­i­dent Trump cru­elly threat­ens to cut off fed­eral aid. Do­ing so would be govern­ment by spite and should be con­sid­ered an im­peach­able of­fense.

Puerto Rico, as any fifth-grader knows, is part of the Amer­ica that Trump prom­ises to make great again. But the mayor of San Juan had the temer­ity to crit­i­cize the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to the calamity of Hur­ri­cane Maria as slow and in­ad­e­quate. For Trump, ev­ery­thing is al­ways all about Trump. He des­per­ately craves adu­la­tion.

The pres­i­dent com­plained Sun­day on Twit­ter, “No­body could have done what I’ve done for #Puer­toRico with so lit­tle ap­pre­ci­a­tion. So much work!” Note the use of “I” in­stead of “we” or even “my ad­min­is­tra­tion.” For the record, what Trump has done per­son­ally for the peo­ple of Puerto Rico is play­fully toss rolls of pa­per tow­els into a crowd.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has done much more, of course. But des­per­ate peo­ple — still fac­ing crit­i­cal short­ages of food and water three weeks af­ter the storm — are de­mand­ing more ac­tion. This makes them “in­grates” in Trump’s eyes.

Sadly, those are the kinds of words we’ve come to ex­pect from this pres­i­dent. But on Thurs­day he went beyond his usual self-pity­ing, self-jus­ti­fy­ing blather to make an out­ra­geous threat: “We can­not keep FEMA, the Mil­i­tary & the First Re­spon­ders, who have been amaz­ing (un­der the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances) in P.R. for­ever!”

That cul­mi­nated a se­ries of blame-the-vic­tim tweets about how Puerto Ri­cans face “a fi­nan­cial cri­sis . . . largely of their own mak­ing” and how “elec­tric and all in­fra­struc­ture was [a] dis­as­ter be­fore hur­ri­canes.” The need to solve the is­land’s debt prob­lem and up­date its in­fra­struc­ture is wor­thy of se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion, but not while peo­ple are hav­ing to col­lect un­pu­ri­fied water in buck­ets from moun­tain springs — and not as some kind of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for cut­ting off re­lief aid.

This may be the most un-Amer­i­can thing Trump has ever said or done. I am se­ri­ous that if he ac­tu­ally with­draws emer­gency as­sis­tance while Puerto Rico is still in such con­di­tion, Con­gress should be­gin im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings.

Pres­i­dents do not get to pick and choose which Amer­i­cans to help at times of dis­as­ter. We are one coun­try, and we do what we must to help fel­low ci­ti­zens in need. We saw it dur­ing this long, ter­ri­ble hur­ri­cane sea­son, in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas, Flor­ida — strangers help­ing strangers, re­gard­less of race, in­come, po­lit­i­cal views. We are see­ing it now as fire­fight­ers from around the coun­try con­verge on North­ern Cal­i­for­nia to at­tack the deadly blazes that are still burn­ing out of con­trol.

It is wrong to de­scribe Trump as any kind of na­tion­al­ist if he fails to grasp the most fun­da­men­tal of na­tion­al­is­tic pre­cepts: We leave none of our own on the bat­tle­field.

The re­spon­si­bil­ity of the fed­eral govern­ment is to keep FEMA work­ers, mil­i­tary per­son­nel and other first re­spon­ders in Puerto Rico as long as nec­es­sary. It is im­por­tant to do so be­cause their pres­ence will save lives. It is also im­por­tant be­cause do­ing any­thing else would vi­o­late the Amer­i­can com­pact. If Trump re­ally were to turn his back on Puerto Rico, he would be guilty of a “high crime” and dis­qual­i­fied to con­tinue in of­fice.

I know that Trump de­lights in vi­o­lat­ing po­lit­i­cal norms and caus­ing the com­men­tariat to run around with its hair on fire. I know that he some­times says provoca­tive things on Twit­ter to dis­tract from his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fail­ures, to rally his base, to pro­voke his en­e­mies or even just to blow off steam. I know that it’s im­pos­si­ble to take any one tweet too se­ri­ously, be­cause it may be di­rectly con­tra­dicted by the next tweet.

But Trump ac­tu­ally went to Puerto Rico, and while he did not see the worst of the dev­as­ta­tion, he saw more than enough. He knows that re­cov­ery is go­ing to be a long, mas­sive and largely thank­less job. But that is the job he signed up for when he took the oath of of­fice. Con­gress must not al­low him to shirk his duty.

To di­vide the coun­try with rhetoric, as Trump so of­ten does, is one thing. But to ac­tu­ally aban­don 3.4 mil­lion Amer­i­cans in their hour of need not only would be an un­prece­dented and shame­ful act. It would also be grounds for re­mov­ing an un­fit man from the high of­fice he dis­hon­ors.

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