Trump hails ‘incredible’ response in ‘lovely’ trip to storm-torn Puerto Rico
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, N.J. 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?”