WASHINGTON – While President Trump toured Puerto Rico on Tuesday to praise his team’s response to Hurricane Maria, some of his critics heard other things — including a joke about the expense of the effort and praise for the fact that only 16 people have died since the deadly storm two weeks ago.
“Sixteen people certified – 16 people versus in the thousands,” Trump said during a briefing with Puerto Rican officials; he added that while “every death is a horror,” the devastation has not been “a real catastrophe” on the same scale of Hurricane Katrina, which killed some 1,800 people in New Orleans in 2005.
Citing the logistical and financial challenges of the federal disaster response on the island, Trump quipped: “Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack, but you’re throwing our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that’s fine; we saved a lot of lives.”
Trump’s comments did not go over well with some U.S. lawmakers.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., hit Trump for having “the gall to complain about Puerto Rico” while he has proposed “tax cuts for billionaires” throughout the United States. He also noted that Trump didn’t tell jokes about Texas and Florida after their hurricanes.
“Mr. President, enough,” Schumer said. “Stop blaming Puerto Rico for the storm that devastated their shores, and roll up your sleeves and get the recovery on track. That’s your job as President.”
Trump also got a somewhat frosty reception from some Puerto Rico residents, after more than a week of back-and-forth between the president and local critics of the U.S. relief effort.
Aerial footage shows how the once beautiful destination has been utterly devastated by Hurricane Maria. Video shot by Ricky Flores and Carrie Cochran. USA TODAY
As Trump motorcaded to various spots on the island, passing broken highway dividers and hundreds of downed trees, one local woman held up a sign telling the president, “You are a bad hombre.”
In addition to the briefing, Trump toured a neighborhood where residents are rebuilding damaged homes. “We’re going to help you out,” he told members of one family.
At a church converted into a relief center, Trump handed out bags of “Arroz Rico” rice; he “shot” rolls of paper towels into the crowd like basketballs; he picked up items from a supply table, showed to them to the crowd, and handed them to people with outstretched hands.
“There’s a lot of love in this room,” Trump said at one point.
The president spent more than four hours in Puerto Rico before returning to Washington, D.C., aboard Air Force One.
During that trip, Trump declared his visit a success, telling reporters, “we’ve only heard thank you’s from the people of Puerto Rico.”
Trump also confronted one of his critics on the island, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has clashed with Trump over the pace of relief efforts.
Earlier, as Air Force One headed for Puerto Rico, Cruz announced she would attend a briefing with the president and local leaders.
“I will use this opportunity to reiterate the primary message: this is about saving lives, not about politics,” Cruz said in a statement. “This is also about giving the people of Puerto Rico the respect we deserve; and recognizing the moral imperative to do both.”
During his time on the island, Trump shook hands with Cruz, but she did not react kindly to his comment about the whack in the federal budget.
“It just goes to prove the lack of sensibility,” she told CNN. “It does not make you feel too good.”
At his briefing, Trump appeared to slight Cruz as he singled out Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for not playing “politics” with the response. The president repeatedly praised his “amazing” response team, and called on some of his hosts to praise the U.S. effort as well.
Critics found Trump less than empathetic, noting that much of the island still lacks food, potable water and electrical power.
David Axelrod, longtime political adviser to President Obama, tweeted: “Entire press avail is about what a terrific job admin has done. If people of Puerto Rico had power and could watch TV, they might differ.”
According to the White House, there are more than 12,300 federal staff members on the ground in Puerto Rico, and there is mixed information about the recovery.
On one hand, 100% of airports are open, 92% of deep water ports or open or partially operational, and 94% of the island’s hospitals have reopened.
On the other: Only 5.4% of customers have electricity, only 50% of the population has drinking water, and only 17% of waste water treatment plants operational.
Trump has denounced any criticism as political, and he defended the hurricane response throughout the day, stressing that Puerto Rico is an island in the ocean and the damage wrought by the storm has made transportation difficult.
Earlier Tuesday, while leaving the White House, Trump said: “In Texas and in Florida we get an A-plus …. And I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it’s actually a much tougher situation.”
In her complaints last week about the U.S. response, Cruz had objected to the acting Department of Homeland Security chief calling Puerto Rico relief a “good news story” while people were dying.
In tweets over the weekend, Trump accused Cruz of “poor leadership” and said she was taking instructions from Democrats that she “be nasty to Trump.” In another missive, Trump said too many people in Puerto Rico “want everything to be done for them.”
In an interview with MSNBC on Saturday, Cruz said she wasn’t being nasty to the president, she was only “asking for help” for her constituents.
“This is a time when everyone shows their true colors,” Cruz said. “I will continue to do what I have to do, say what I have to say, compliment the people that I have to compliment, and call out the people that I need to call out.”
Speaking with reporters at the White House before his departure, Trump said Cruz has been more conciliatory in her more recent remarks, and “I think she’s come back a long way; I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done, and people are looking at that.”