Trump defends response to devastation in Puerto Rico, promises visit
“Everybody has said it’s amazing the job that we’ve done in Puerto Rico,” Trump said during a Rose Garden news conference. “We’re very proud of it. . . . This was a place that was destroyed. I think we’ve done a very good job.”
The president’s rosy assessment came amid mounting criticism that he has appeared far less engaged in the recovery efforts of a U.S. territory with a long history of unequal treatment than for those in Texas and Florida after the recent hurricanes in those states.
Trump announced plans to visit Puerto Rico next week to get a firsthand look at the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which killed at least 16 people and left most of the island’s 3.4 million people without power and facing serious shortages of food and medical supplies.
Just weeks after earning high marks for his response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Trump now faces multiple political risks related to Maria as the scope of the decimation becomes clearer by the day.
“His treatment of Puerto Rico gives the impression that he doesn’t consider it as much of a part of the United States as Texas and Florida,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University.
Questions about Trump’s engagement have been fueled by what critics see as the president’s obsession with NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, a feud that has dominated Trump’s Twitter feed, often a good gauge of what is grabbing his attention.
On Monday night, Trump tweeted about Puerto Rico for the first time since Maria made landfall last Wednesday, and many were taken aback by a tone that seemed to be blaming the island for its plight. In his tweets, Trump highlighted Puerto Rico’s long-running debt problems and antiquated electrical grid.
Naftali said that in his responses to Harvey and Irene, Trump and his team seemed to have learned the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that stained the presidency of George W. Bush after his detached response.
“Trump wanted the message to be loud and clear, ‘We care,’ ” Naftali said. “That attention has been sorely lacking in the case of Hurricane Maria.”
Those questioning Trump’s interest in helping Puerto Rico have included an array of Democratic politicians, including his vanquished presidential rival Hillary Clinton, and numerous celebrities such as pop singer Marc Anthony.
“Do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico,” Anthony, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, wrote in a tweet this week. “We are American citizens too.”
At the White House earlier Tuesday, Trump insisted to reporters that “Puerto Rico is very important to me.”
“The people are fantastic people,” he said. “I grew up in New York, so I know many people from Puerto Rico. I know many Puerto Ricans. And these are great people, and we have to help them.”
Trump also told reporters that he is waiting until Tuesday to visit the island because “it’s the earliest I can go because of the first responders, and we don’t want to disrupt the relief efforts.” He added that he will also visit the U.S. Virgin Islands, which experienced extensive damage as well.
On Twitter on Tuesday, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló posted a photo of him briefing Trump via video conference call and “thanked him for his leadership, quick response & commitment to our people.”
Even before Tuesday’s news conference with visiting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, Trump was drawing flak from those who said he is understating the challenges ahead.
One of the Trump’s tweets on Monday night asserted that “food, water and medical are top priorities — and doing well.”
That prompted a rebuke on the Senate floor Tuesday from Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“With all due respect, President Trump, the relief efforts are not doing well, they’re not close to good enough,” Schumer said. “All any American needs to do is open a newspaper or turn on a TV to know that Puerto Rico is not doing well.”
Journalist Geraldo Rivera delivered the same message Tuesday morning during a report on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” — typically a friendly venue for Trump.