Puerto Rico Hurricane Deaths

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2017 file photo, a Puerto Rican flag is mounted on debris of a damaged home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in the seaside slum La Perla, San Juan, Puerto Rico. An independent investigation ordered by Puerto Rico’s government estimates that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria. The findings issued Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University contrast sharply with the official death toll of 64. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

There’s a new official death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and it’s ugly: The island now estimates that 2,975 people died. Donald Trump, however, is still telling everyone his administration did a “fantastic job” and making excuses for the things that did go wrong, which he somehow also doesn’t acknowledge.

And Congress? They don’t seem very interested in the subject.

The thing is: We really don’t know how the response went so wrong. It’s fairly clear that Trump didn’t do his job very well; he didn’t push the bureaucracy to make Puerto Rico relief a high priority, which is something presidents can really do to affect overall government response.

But beyond that, a year later, no one really knows how much of the disaster was the responsibility of the president; how much the responsibility of FEMA; how much was Puerto Rican officials; and how much was other parts of the federal government. Nor do we know how much was simply the inherent difficulty of emergency operations on the island.

The continuing deliberate ignorance is a disaster in itself. It’s one thing for government operations to go wrong; it’s another for the incumbent party to falsely claim that everything is just peachy keen.

In one sense, this is a major Trump administration scandal that Congress — and for that matter much of the media — has mostly ignored.

But in another sense, this is simply a difficult policy question. Trump isn’t wrong that there are real logistical challenges, but as Juliette Kayyem points out, it’s not exactly news that Puerto Rico is an island.

More to the point: Puerto Rico still is an island, and it’s going to stay that way, and so perhaps instead of using that as an excuse the administration might want to try to figure out how to do better. And maybe Congress should also try to figure out what lessons from this failure can be applied not only to islands, but to other areas with difficult logistics.

In other words, it’s one problem that in a sense Trump is getting away with something that should have been a major scandal. But for Congress to treat everything only in terms of presidential scandal politics is an even larger problem.

That was, indeed, the real problem with the House Republican fixation on Benghazi during the Obama investigation — not that they were prepared to hit the other-party president hard for a policy failure, but that they were so intent on finding an upper-case Scandal that they actually ignored the very questionable real policy choices that helped produce the deaths in Libya.

So, yes, there are real Trump administration scandals that congressional Republicans have ignored in order to protect a Republican administration, and that’s bad because there should be strong incentives to avoid scandal. But even worse is that they’re so intent on scandal politics that they are missing very real policy questions.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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