President Trump traveled Tuesday to devastated Puerto Rico in the wake of his administration’s maligned response to Hurricane Maria. But as soon as he stepped off the plane, the president was in a self-congratulatory mood.
“The governor is not even from my party and he was tremendously supportive,” Trump said of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “Right from the beginning this governor did not play politics.”
The comments appeared to be a dig at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has criticized Trump’s response to the storm. Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a category 4 storm, leaving most of the island without power, clean drinking water or access to food and supplies.
Cruz gave an impassioned press conference on Friday, saying, “We are dying here,” and calling for more support from the administration. Those comments provoked an intense response from the president the next day. Trump slammed her “poor leadership ability” on Twitter and said that “federal workers” were doing a “fantastic job.” Cruz shot back with, “The goal is one: saving lives. This is the time to show our ‘true colors’. We cannot be distracted by anything else.”
Cruz attended the president’s briefing on Tuesday, and soon after Trump stepped off Air Force One they did shake hands. But Cruz sat with her hands clasped and didn’t clap as Trump praised FEMA Director Brock Long, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, White House Homeland Security Aide Tom Bossert and others.
“Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” Trump said jokingly at one point, “because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”
Trump also referred to the storm’s death toll, currently 16 lives lost, the president seemed to being saying that at least it hadn’t been as bad as past hurricanes.
“Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you at the tremendous, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this,” Trump said.
“What is your death count as of this moment?” he asked local officials. “17? 16 people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands.”
On Friday, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke told reporters that the death toll had been relatively low and that the response had been “a good-news story in terms of our ability to reach people.” But that number that is all but certain to climb.
Trump had praised his administration’s response earlier on Tuesday as he was departing the White House.
“I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done, and people are looking at that,” he said. “And 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. But now the roads are cleared, communications is starting to come back. We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks.”
But he’s come under intense criticism for slow efforts to get help to the island, which he explained last Friday was in part because it was “surrounded by water.”
Trump has also alluded to the territory’s “broken infrastructure & massive debt” as another reason why its recovery has been slower than in Florida and Texas, which were also battered recently by hurricanes.