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The false alarm in Hawaii reveals an abdication of leadership

Trump could and should have responded quickly to assuage Americans over the Hawaii false alarm last week, but he never did

Gulf News

On a normal day, there aren’t many people heading to Google to figure out how to survive a nuclear strike. But last Saturday was not a normal day in the United States.

Shortly after 2.30pm Eastern time, searches for “how to survive nuclear” peaked in the US, from being almost nonexistent to being almost twice as common as “how to make pasta”. The increase was centred in Hawaii, where about 90 minutes earlier, a warning had gone out over the state’s emergency alert system: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

It was wrong.

According to a timeline released by the state, the alert was triggered at 8.07am local time when, during an internal drill, an employee hit the wrong button. For 13 minutes it went uncorrected, until the emergency management agency sent an update on social media.

Over the ensuing hours, a number of people relayed their experience after receiving the incorrect message. Near panic. Comforting children while worrying about loved ones. Confusion and uncertainty from officials. In the absence of other information, cobbling together what evidence they could for whether they would survive the day.

Many reported first hearing that the alert was a mistake from the Twitter account of Representative Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat, from Hawaii), who had tweeted: “HAWAII — THIS IS A FALSE ALARM. THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE TO HAWAII. I HAVE CONFIRMED WITH OFFICIALS THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE.”

Her tweet went out within about 15 minutes of the false alarm to her 174,000 followers. She was probably the first well-known authority figure to inform the public that there was no need to panic. News outlets picked up that clarification and spread it widely.

This, by contrast, was US President Donald Trump’s first tweet after the incorrect alert went out: “So much Fake News is being reported. They don’t even try to get it right, or correct it when they are wrong. They promote the Fake Book of a mentally deranged author, who knowingly writes false information. The Mainstream Media is crazed that WE won the election!” This was sent more than three hours after the alert went out. As you can see, it has nothing to do with the alert. Those who follow Trump on Twitter — 46.6 million of them — haven’t been given any information about what happened on Saturday at all.

The White House did release a statement, well after the alert was revealed to be incorrect. “The President has been briefed on the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise,” it read. “This was purely a state exercise.”

At the time the incorrect alert went out Trump, was finishing up a round of golf at Trump National Golf Course in Florida.

Consider his responses. First that statement, which has one obvious aim: To assure the American people that it wasn’t his fault that the false alert went out — it was Hawaii’s. Then, that tweet, which shows what was preoccupying the president at the moment. Not that one of the 50 states had been briefly wracked with terror after a mistake was made by the people whose job it is to keep them safe. Instead, an insistence to the American people that the media is “fake news,” which was probably a response to the reports that trickled out bolstering a story from the Wall Street Journal that Trump had allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he’d had an affair.

That was the thing that Trump urgently wanted to clear up: The media couldn’t be trusted when it reported on him.

Trump could have tweeted as soon as possible that the alert was a false alarm, sharing that information with millions of Americans immediately. He could have additionally shared information about what went wrong, and assured people that he would work to make sure that no such error happened again in the future. He could, at the very least, have sought to offer some emotional support to the people of Hawaii. He did none of these. He has, as of writing, done none of these.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump has rarely assumed that traditional leadership role of the presidency. He’s always taken a hostile attitude towards those who opposed his candidacy, certainly, but he’s also been apathetic about stepping up more broadly to inform, guide and assure the American public. The primary concerns Trump conveys to Americans are about Trump: About how he’s being treated, about how well he is doing, about the media and his opponents and how he just wants to make America great again. The White House releases statements and, as he did last Friday in recognising Martin Luther King Jr Day, Trump will read them or tweet about them. But it’s clearly not where his heart lies.

Perhaps that the incident occurred in Hawaii plays a role. It seems odd to have to note that, but it’s certainly defensible. From his attorney general at one point dismissing the state as “an island in the Pacific” to Trump’s general focus on states he won to, we have to note, the gulf between his responses to the hurricanes that struck Texas and Florida and the one that nearly wiped Puerto Rico clean — there is plenty of evidence that can be cited for Trump’s not necessarily having the state of Hawaii at the forefront of his thoughts. Normally, one wouldn’t even assume that a president might be indifferent to one of the 50 states. Here, it’s impossible not to wonder if it’s the case.

This is not a high hurdle for a president to face. Should a state be informed that a missile is inbound, it seems self-evident that the president should be made aware of this as rapidly as possible — even if golfing — and act quickly to confirm or rebut the claim. To then quickly inform the public that the story is not true and insist that a review will be undertaken nationally to prevent such a thing from happening again. Perhaps a photo of the president, stern look on his face, speaking with the governor of Hawaii.

An assurance that the government recognises that a mistake was made and that it is handling things. That didn’t happen.

It’s also hard to imagine that Trump didn’t make the situation more stressful in another way. His constant prodding of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has dramatically increased the sense that a missile might actually be launched at Hawaii from that nation. During the past 12 months, we’ve learned a lot more about what North Korea can do, and we’ve heard experts describe Trump’s response as exacerbating, not lessening, the possibility of conflict.

The result is that there was actually one message Trump sent to Hawaiians last Saturday: You’re on your own.

— Washington Post

Philip Bump is a correspondent for the Post based in New York.

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