Helaine Olen: Alabama tornadoes another opportunity for Trump to reward supporters and punish opponents
It’s good when a majority of voters in your state back Donald Trump. Just ask the residents of Alabama, who discovered Monday morning that the president of the United States is going to make sure they receive VIP treatment following the devastating tornadoes that swept across a rural part of the state Sunday, killing at least 23 people.
Trump tweeted: “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. GovernorKayIvey, one of the best in our Country, has been so informed. She is working closely with FEMA (and me!).”
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with Trump demanding the Federal Emergency Management Agency bring “A Plus treatment” to any natural disaster. It’s exactly what we should expect from any president and our government agencies. One major function is to act as a safety net when hard times come. That’s not a controversial point.
This is not, however, why Trump cares so much about Alabama. He’s demonstrated repeatedly that he views the levers of government as something to be manipulated to benefit supporters and punish those who would like to see him gone from office or otherwise thwart his agenda.
Compare and contrast his concern for Alabama with another reveal that occurred Monday. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reports that Trump demanded then chief economic adviser Gary Cohn block the merger between AT&T and Time Warner. It’s long been suspected that Trump’s pique over CNN’s coverage of him was behind the administration’s ultimately unsuccessful opposition to the corporate marriage, but Trump’s denied it. Casting further doubt on the Trump administration’s stated claims that they were concerned about market domination if the AT&T-Time Warner deal went through when they challenged it is the fact that the government officials were essentially absent when 21st Century Fox (parent company of Fox News) sold off many of its entertainment properties to Disney, despite the fact, as Meyer reports, the combined company will control about 50 percent of the box-office profits in the United States.
But we see this punishment and reward system time and time again. Trump’s solicitousness to Alabama is a stark contrast to his treatment of California after last fall’s devastating wildfires that destroyed the town of Paradise, and caused billions of dollars in damage across the state. Trump blamed the fires on poor forest management and claimed “no more Fed payments” unless things changed. He doubled down in January during the government shutdown, taking to Twitter to once again threaten the state’s emergency aid. “Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!” California, needless to say, is firmly a blue state.
Like Alabama, Florida and Texas, which both went for Trump, quickly received help after hurricanes struck their states. But Puerto Rico? It took Trump two weeks to turn up. More than seven months passed before electricity returned to most of the island. Money was slow in coming from Congress — and what was allocated was inadequate. Trump has since claimed that Democrats were exaggerating the number of people who died in Puerto Rico as a result of the hurricane “in order to make me look as bad as possible.”
We can see the pattern. The Republican tax reform package included provisions such as the $10,000 ceiling on deducting state and local taxes, which hit states where Hillary Clinton won particularly hard. It’s been reported that Trump’s continuing refusal to release funds to build a desperately needed train tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey originates in his fury at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer opposing funding a border wall. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, claims “it’s no coincidence” that Trump demanded California return federal money spent on a building a high-speed train line a mere day after California took the lead in suing the Trump administration over the president’s emergency declaration to build that same wall.
A president is supposed to represent all of us, especially when disaster strikes. But that’s not how Trump views politics. Instead, he sees it as a system of rewards and punishments in a way that would not be unfamiliar to an organized crime chief. This is a profound failure of both morals and governance. No wonder our country is so divided.