A pair of crises tests Trump’s presidential empathy

US president’s challenges were on full display this week, as he responded to two disasters — Las Vegas and Puerto Rico –with very different results

US President Donald Trump leaves an event after the end of an for Hispanic Heritage Month at the White House on October 6, 2017. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)
US President Donald Trump leaves an event after the end of an for Hispanic Heritage Month at the White House on October 6, 2017. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the death toll from the shooting in Las Vegas rapidly rose, White House officials urged US President Donald Trump to show restraint in his response: No speculative tweets, please. No over-the-top bluster.

White House chief of staff John Kelly encouraged a simple tweet of condolences. Aides wrote somber remarks that had Trump quoting scripture. Some around the president were encouraged to hear him connecting to the tragedy on a personal level — talking about his property and calling friends there — a sign he was taking in the impact of the event.

The anxious counsel from his aides as Trump prepared to react to the largest mass shooting in US history was a reminder of Trump’s troubled track record in such moments. Trump has often had difficulty embracing a central role of the American presidency: consoling people dealing with intense grief, regardless of their political affiliation or support for the White House’s agenda. It’s a quality that is rarely debated or analyzed on the campaign trail, yet one that can shape the way Americans view the success of their president.

Trump’s challenges with empathy were on full display this week, as he responded to two disasters at once with very different results. Trump ultimately stuck to the script in Las Vegas, avoiding controversy and assuming the role of national healer. It was a measured response that stood in stark contrast to his uneven response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico, which saw Trump lash out at the mayor of San Juan, urge officials to say positive things about his administration and throw rolls of paper towels into the crowd at a relief center like he was tossing T-shirts at a sporting event.

This account is based on conversations with 11 White House aides and others who spoke with the president this week.

Presidents are remembered for the way they respond in moments of great tumult or trial.

Bill Clinton’s speech after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing helped him right his struggling presidency. George W. Bush’s bullhorn address while standing atop the rubble of the World Trade Center helped heal the nation after the 9/11 attacks. Yet Bush’s presidency would never fully recover from the government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which left many Americans with the perception that the president was detached from the suffering on the ground.

Trump’s response to the devastation in Puerto Rico has generated a raft of criticism.

In the first days after Maria, Trump was more focused on his feud with NFL players who were kneeling during the national anthem, blasting them in private to his allies and in public on Twitter. As images of the devastation in Puerto Rico began appearing more frequently on cable television, aides intensified their briefings, but Trump complained about the island’s debt and became fixated on the criticism from San Juan mayor’s, Carmen Yulín Cruz, according to three White House officials and outside allies.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz during a briefing on hurricane recovery efforts with first responders at Luis Muniz Air National Guard Base, Tuesday, October 3, 2017, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Despite the scenes of devastation around Cruz, Trump decided to hit back on Twitter, ignoring advice from Kelly and homeland security adviser Tom Bossert to focus on the recovery.

The public has been watching.

Just 32 percent of Americans approve of how Trump has handled disaster relief in the US territory, while 49 percent disapprove, according to a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. On Thursday, Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia called Trump’s visit to the island an insult.

“When we see the president of the United States go to Puerto Rico throwing toilet paper, paper towels, what is that saying to the American people? It is an affront,” Lewis said.

The president, however, believed his trip to Puerto Rico on Tuesday went well, according to a person who spoke with him after the visit. And friends say Trump, an unconventional president by any measure, was simply handling the situation in his own way.

“I think he’s an old school John Wayne-type guy who doesn’t like to wear emotions on his shirtsleeves,” said Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend of the president and the chairman of Newsmax. “He doesn’t cry in public and he doesn’t like men who do.”

After Trump’s bumpy response to the Puerto Rico hurricane, top aides, including Kelly, scripted out a more measured response for the president after the shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday, which left 58 people dead. Trump largely followed the game plan, including avoiding public speculation about the motive of the shooter in a city where he owns a hotel that sports his name in giant gold letters. Trump consulted several friends from the city, including casino magnate and mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, about his response. He told aides he wanted to salute the law enforcement personnel he believes prevented the massacre from being worse.

US President Donald Trump greets a room full of police officers and first responders at Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters, October 4, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Trump often struggled as a candidate to exude the kind of empathy that comes naturally to some politicians. In the summer of 2016, aides tried repeatedly to explain to Trump why his attacks on Khizr Khan, a Muslim-American whose son was killed fighting for the US military in Iraq, were off-putting to so many voters. One former campaign official said Trump was unmoved by arguments about the sacrifices Khan’s family had made for the country and couldn’t get past the fact that Khan had spoken out against the Republican nominee at the Democratic Party’s convention.

His staff tried to limit small, potentially emotional gatherings with supporters, knowing that Trump preferred the distance of a large, roaring crowd. In October, as he made a last-minute push to win Florida, advisers prepped Trump about the gut-wrenching story of Miriam de la Pena, whose son’s plane was shot down by the Cuban government in 1996, according to another former campaign staffer.

But Trump was far more focused on the endorsement he was set to receive later that day and, as de la Pena choked up recounting her tale, his eyes wandered around the room, only turning to say “very sad story” when the tearful mother finished speaking.

Former advisers say Trump also appears to lack any understanding of the impact his often sharp-tongued tirades can have on aides. One adviser recalled being berated by Trump in the Oval Office, in front of multiple colleagues, in particularly humiliating fashion. The next day, Trump called the adviser on the phone and started joking as though the previous day’s outburst had never happened.

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