President Donald Trump arrived in Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the territory struggled to recover from Hurricane Maria, which has left nearly all the island without power and most residents without water nearly two weeks later.
But Trump’s focus was on the “unbelievable” and “incredible” job that his administration has done so far. He repeatedly played down the destruction to the island, telling local officials they should feel “very proud” they haven’t lost hundreds of lives like in “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005. But he also complained that the small territory’s disaster threw the nation’s budget “a little out of whack.”
At one brief stop at a church, Trump told the gathering that they no longer needed flashlights, and he tossed rolls of paper towels into the crowd as if they were basketballs. He took a helicopter tour, visited a ship, posed for selfies — and then left an hour earlier than scheduled.
The whirlwind, four-hour visit came amid accusations that the Trump administration did not act quickly enough to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Maria – and that the president paid less attention to the territories than to Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Florida after Hurricane Irma. Trump and his aides have responded by attacking critics and seeking to discount news coverage of Maria’s desperate aftermath.
In an interview with Fox News later Tuesday, Trump said that Puerto Rico’s large debt – the island territory filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and facing $72 billion in debt – will need to be wiped away.
“They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out,” the president said. “You’re going to say goodbye to that. I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs but whoever it is you can wave goodbye to that.”
Trump was upbeat and, at times, playful during the visit, often sounding more like an athletic coach congratulating his team after a winning season than a president addressing American citizens at a moment of crisis.
Soon after arriving, he turned what was supposed to be a private briefing on relief efforts into a televised pep talk, praising members of his administration and the military for their long hours responding to several hurricanes over the past 43 days. He uttered “great” 10 times and used “incredible” and “amazing” seven times each.
At one point, Trump asked the island’s representative to Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, to repeat some of the “nice things” she had said in televised interviews.
“It’s not about me, it’s about these incredible people,” the president said. “I’ve never seen people working so hard in my life.”
González-Colón, a Republican, responded with compliments. “All the questions and requests that the governor did, the president and his Cabinet accomplished it and sent more people,” she said. “Thank you, Mr. President, for all you’ve been doing for the island.”
Trump smiled and said: “Well, I want to thank you because you were really generous. And I saw those comments, and everybody saw those comments, and we really appreciate it.”
Although the administration took a flurry of actions after Maria first hit Sept. 20, the president and his top aides then effectively went dark for four days as he decamped for a long weekend at his private club in Bedminster, New Jersey. After San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz pleaded last week for the federal government to “save us from dying,” Trump accused her on Twitter of having “poor leadership ability.” In another tweet, he said the island’s residents “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
As Trump left the White House on Tuesday morning, he suggested that Cruz had “come back a long way” from her criticism and that “it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done.”
Hours later, Cruz was among the local officials to attend a briefing with Trump in San Juan. The two briefly spoke, but Trump did not mention her in his remarks. She did not join the crowd in applauding him, instead keeping her hands clasped.
“I’ve been to Puerto Rico many times . . . and I’ve always loved it,” he said in his opening remarks. “And your weather is second to none, but every once in a while you get hit. And you really got hit – there’s no question about it.”
Trump gave shout-outs to “all of my people” in the room and to Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who Trump said has been “appreciating what we did.”
“Right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics,” Trump said. “He didn’t play it at all. He was saying it like it was, and he was giving us the highest grades.”
Soon Trump was back to recognizing members of his administration who came along on the trip.
“And Mick Mulvaney is here – right there – and Mick is in charge of a thing called ‘budget,’ ” the president said, referring to the Office of Management and Budget. “Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”
The president continued: “Every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look 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 has ever seen anything like this. What is your death count, as of this moment – 17?”
Rosselló responded: “Sixteen certified.”
“Sixteen people certified,” Trump said. “Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.”
After Trump left, the governor announced that the official death toll had more than doubled, to 34.
The Katrina comments immediately struck many as callous.
“A president should never minimize a single human life,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and professor at Rice University who wrote a book about Hurricane Katrina, whose death toll was about 1,800. “It is never good to make that sort of historical comparison when you’re talking about people.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also said the president never complained about the costs imposed by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. “Stop blaming Puerto Rico for the storm that devastated their shores,” he said.
Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat who was governor of Louisiana during Katrina, said Trump should have taken a more sympathetic approach in visiting the island soon after the hurricane.
“When people are in pain because of a disaster, leaders need to acknowledge that pain,” she said. “Don’t take it personally. It’s not personal, it’s pain. Acknowledge the pain, but try to get the resources there. Enough with the insults, on both sides.”
Cruz, meanwhile, appeared on MSNBC after the president had left, lambasting him for “throwing paper towels and throwing provisions at people.”
“He was insulting to the people of Puerto Rico,” she said. “He’s sort of like miscommunication in chief. You don’t go to another place when people are in peril and are suffering and you just kind of hover around in a helicopter without having some kind words to say.”
But Jason Miller, a former campaign official who worked on the president’s transition team, commended Trump’s approach to the visit.
“I think there’s something to be said for a commander in chief who can both connect with people emotionally when they need support, and who also knows when folks are looking for encouragement and upbeat positivity, when so many of the images around them are so difficult,” Miller said. “For a trip like today it’s important . . . to be both the proverbial shoulder for people to lean on but also to give that sense of optimism that the rest of the country is going to be there to help Puerto Rico rebuild the island.”
Trump spent most of his time in and near San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest city, where recovery is much further along. As his motorcade sped toward the municipality of Guaynabo, he passed broken highway dividers, hundreds of downed trees and small pockets of locals taking photos, including one woman who held a sign that read: “You are a bad hombre.”
The area is among the wealthiest and safest places that Trump could have visited and suffered less damage than poorer communities nearby. As Trump and his wife walked through one neighborhood, several families asked to have their photos taken with the couple. As he finished talking with one family, he told them: “Have a good time.”
Trump stopped by an evangelical church popular with mainland Americans who have moved to Puerto Rico or who have pro-Republican leanings. The group that gathered there shouted that they loved him and held signs that read: “Proud Americans,” “Let’s Make Puerto Rico Great Again” and “God bless You, Mr. President.”
Trump stood behind a table filled with relief supplies, including flashlights, rice and paper towels. He threw rolls into the crowd and, glancing at a pile of solar-powered flashlights, said: “Flashlights, you don’t need ‘em anymore.” An estimated 95 percent of the island remains without electricity.
Trump then hopped in a helicopter for a quick ride to the USS Kearsarge, where he had a private briefing with military officers and the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Soon, Trump and his entourage were back on Air Force One, more than an hour ahead of schedule. At one point during the flight, Trump ventured back to the press cabin and deemed it “a great, great visit, really lovely.”
When asked if he had heard any criticism, Trump replied: “Honestly, I heard none. They were so thankful for what we have done. I think it has been a great day. We only heard thank-yous from the people of Puerto Rico. They are great people, and it was really something that I enjoyed very much.”