Late in September, Bloomberg News climate reporter Christopher Flavelle inadvertently received a series of emails meant for Pentagon employees — emails that detailed the federal plan to spin President Donald Trump’s bungling of the response to Hurricane Maria and to dismiss criticisms from San Juan’s firebrand Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
According to Flavelle, when he notified Defense Department officials, he still continued to receive the bulletins for five days.
“Those messages, each of which was marked ‘unclassified,’ offer a glimpse into the federal government’s struggle to convince the public that the response effort was going well,” Flavelle said Friday. “That struggle was compounded by the commander-in-chief, and eased only when public attention was pulled to a very different disaster.”
He went on to list dates, the news events that took place and the Pentagon’s response plan.
“Sept. 28: Eight days after Maria hit, coverage of the federal government’s response is getting more negative,” Flavelle said. “The Government Message: Pentagon officials tell staff to emphasize ‘coverage of life-saving/life-sustaining operations’ and for spokespeople to avoid language about awaiting instructions from FEMA, ‘as that goes against the teamwork top-line message.’”
On Sep. 30, Trump attacked Mayor Yulín Cruz as a “poor leader” and Pentagon officials fretted that the president’s “lack of empathy” was becoming the front-page story, so the response was to hammer on the message that FEMA has been successful at reaching “all municipalities in Puerto Rico.”
Notably, FEMA has still not provided relief supplies to the furthest western reaches of the island, where people are dying of water-borne diseases and struggling to survive.
On Oct. 1, Trump called his critics “politically-motivated ingrates”. On that day, the Pentagon’s message was, “Defense staff admit that ‘the perception of USG response continues to be negative.’ Spokespeople are told to say, ‘I am very proud of our DOD forces,” before conceding “there are some challenges to work through.’”