During Disasters, Red States Get The Red Carpet. Blue States Get Threats.

The California wildfires and Hurricane Laura highlight the disparities in the Trump administration’s disaster responses.

When historic wildfires rage in blue California, President Donald Trump slams the state for doing a poor job of “raking” forests, and threatens to withhold federal relief funds.

When a devastating hurricane takes aim at red states along the Gulf of Mexico, Trump stands ready to assist.

The past two weeks have once again highlighted the White House’s favoritism for the people who live in states that helped elect Trump in 2016. With the 2020 election less than three months away, Trump has shown he has no intention of playing nice with the jurisdictions he stands little chance of winning in November. Along with threatening to punish fire-scorched California, he and his team have sought to paint other Democratic-run cities and states as dangerous, crime-ridden and mismanaged ― and insisted that Trump, even though he leads the nation, bears no blame for anything happening there.

“These are Democratically-led cities and most with Democratic governors,” White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway said Thursday during an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” when asked about ongoing unrest across the country. “It’s not Donald Trump’s watch.”

It’s clear why the president would do this. As Mark Joseph Stern, a staff writer at Slate, wrote in a recent Twitter post: “A president who knows he won’t win blue states can punish them, sacrifice them, undercut them, trash them ― there’s no electoral penalty. Those states don’t matter to him. Their residents’ votes don’t matter.”

President Donald Trump embraces a boy at a distribution center in New Bern, North Carolina, while participating in a tour of Hurricane Florence recovery efforts, Sept. 19, 2018.
President Donald Trump embraces a boy at a distribution center in New Bern, North Carolina, while participating in a tour of Hurricane Florence recovery efforts, Sept. 19, 2018.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Meanwhile, blue states are struggling with problems that have nothing to do with party affiliation. California is once again reeling from record-breaking wildfires. In less than two weeks, some 700 fires scorched more than 1.3 million acres — nearly three times the five-year annual average of 450,000 acres ― and forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

As the fires grew last week, Trump rolled out his to-go attack. At an Aug. 20 campaign rally in Pennsylvania, he insisted California has “gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests” of “leaves and broken trees,” adding: “Maybe we’re just going to have to make them pay for it, because they don’t listen to us.” As usual, there was no mention of the link between climate change and wildfires, or the fact that many of California’s worst fires have been on land managed by the federal government, not the state.

“Just today, the president of the United States threatened the state of California ― 40 million Americans who happen to live here in the state of California ― to defund our efforts of fire suppression, because he said we haven’t raked enough leaves,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said later that day during an address at the Democratic National Convention. “You can’t make that up.”

Compare that to Trump’s response to Hurricane Laura, which slammed into the Louisiana coast early Thursday as a powerful Category 4 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.

“My Administration remains fully engaged with state & local emergency managers to continue preparing and assisting the great people [of] Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas,” Trump wrote of the red states in a Wednesday post to Twitter, as Laura continued to intensify offshore. “Listen to local officials. We are with you!”

Vice President Mike Pence also promised a swift federal response in areas impacted by the storm.

“Our prayers are with you tonight,” Pence said late Wednesday during a speech at the Republican National Convention. “FEMA has mobilized resources and supplies for those in harm’s way. This is a serious storm, and we urge all of those in the affected areas to heed state and local authorities. Stay safe. And know that we’ll be with you every step of the way, to support, rescue, respond and recover in the days and weeks ahead. That’s what Americans do.”

Disparities in the Trump administration’s disaster responses are nothing new.

When Super Typhoon Yutu ― one of the strongest recorded tropical cyclones to make landfall anywhere on the planet ― tore through the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory of some 55,000 people in the Pacific, in October 2018, Trump declared an emergency but did not comment publicly or post to Twitter about the Category 5-equivalent storm. And during the fires in California last year, Trump claimed to have ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cut off wildfire relief aid for the state until officials there could “get their act together” and do a better job of managing forests.

“He told us to stop giving money to people whose houses had burned down from a wildfire, because he was so rageful that people in the state of California didn’t support him and that politically it wasn’t a base for him,” Miles Taylor, former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration, said in a political ad last week endorsing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

But when a barrage of deadly tornadoes wreaked havoc in Alabama, a deep red state, in March 2019, Trump offered nothing but support. “FEMA has been told directly by me to give the A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama and the wonderful people who have been so devastated by the Tornadoes,” he boasted on Twitter.

The double standard goes beyond Trump’s Twitter presence and public statements.

A Politico investigation in March 2018 found that the government’s response to the devastation Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico ― a U.S. territory whose residents do not vote in general elections, but which supported Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential primaries ― was “much slower” than relief efforts in Texas for Hurricane Harvey. When a government-commissioned study concluded that back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria killed nearly 3,000 people in the island territory, Trump flatly denied the death toll.

Trump has maintained that the administration’s widely criticized response in Puerto Rico was “an incredible, unsung success.”

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