Trump attacks mayor of San Juan, ratcheting up tensions over crisis in Puerto Rico
“Trump is simply not going to let the San Juan mayor define the U.S. relief efforts when he feels like he is being attacked,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “His comments are divisive, yet they redefine the mayor’s intent as partisan to his base, which is really what matters to him.”
Doug Heye, a GOP consultant and former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said he found Trump’s tweets “appalling.”
“He essentially said Puerto Ricans were lazy,” said Heye, adding that the mayor had actually not said anything negative about Trump and his role in the recovery.
Late Saturday, Trump sought to strike a more positive tone, tweeting: “We must all be united in offering assistance to everyone suffering in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the wake of this terrible disaster.”
But he did not relent in his criticism of Cruz.
“Results of recovery efforts will speak much louder than complaints by San Juan Mayor,” he tweeted. “Doing everything we can to help great people of PR!”
To his critics, Trump has seemed more concerned with the reviews his administration is getting than the response itself.
In a Rose Garden news conference on Tuesday, Trump claimed that “everybody has said it’s amazing the job we’ve done in Puerto Rico” and that his team was getting “tremendous reviews.”
On Thursday, he tweeted that the federal government was doing “a GREAT job.” And on Friday, he cited the death toll in Puerto Rico as evidence of his administration’s success.
“The loss of life — it’s always tragic — but it’s been incredible the results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House en route to his golf club in New Jersey. “People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”
Presidential historians said Trump has failed to frame the catastrophe in the proper context.
“President Trump keeps talking about ratings and reviews,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian and professor at Rice University. “It’s kind of a TV mentality he has. He’s acting like it’s a detached problem.”
In an attempt to blunt criticism, Trump has stressed the degree of difficulty the response in Puerto Rico presents.
At the top of a speech devoted to tax policy on Friday, Trump ticked off a series of issues, including that Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was already in “very, very poor shape,” that the U.S. territory is saddled with “tremendous” debt and that it’s an island.
“This is an island surrounded by water — big water, ocean water,” Trump said.
Trump’s posture has posed a particular challenge for territorial and local officials who want to stay in his good graces but also leverage the most help they can get for their people.
Just a few days ago, Trump tweeted a “thank you” to Cruz for what Trump characterized as her “kind words” about the recovery effort.
Trump advisers say it has been important for the president to boost the spirits of first responders by praising their work in tweets and in public remarks. Doing so while also remaining sensitive to the victims of the hurricanes presents “a balancing act,” said Barry Bennett, a Trump adviser during last year’s election.
For several days now, Trump has accused the media of not giving his administration enough credit for its efforts in Puerto Rico’s recovery. That attack intensified with Saturday’s tweets, including one in which Trump said the “Fake News Networks are working overtime in Puerto Rico doing their best to take the spirit away from our soldiers and first R’s. Shame!”
As for Cruz — who appeared on CNN Friday night wearing a T-shirt reading, “Help us we are dying” — she said on MSNBC that she would like Trump to visit decimated towns to see the public’s “passion for life, see what we are doing to get back on track and listen to their hearts.”
She added that “one can visit as a photo-op or one can visit to make sure that things get done the right way.”
Wagner reported from Washington. Arelis R. Hernández in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Kelsey Snell in Washington contributed to this report.