Trump says Puerto Rico officials should be 'proud' more haven't died like in Katrina
President Donald Trump on Tuesday told Puerto Rican officials they should feel "very proud" they haven't lost hundreds of lives like in "a real catastrophe like Katrina," while adding that the devastated island territory has thrown the nation's budget "a little out of whack."
Trump's remarks came as he touched down in San Juan for his first visit to Puerto Rico since the storm ravaged the island nearly two weeks ago. He has faced criticism for the slow federal response to the natural disaster, although he praised himself earlier in the day for his administration's "great job" and "A-plus" response to Hurricane Maria.
"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's ever seen anything like this," Trump said, before turning to a local official to ask how many people had died in storm. "What is your death count as of this moment? 17? 16 people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands."
Trump then praised officials in the room over the death toll.
"You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together," he said.
The president also seemed to fault the small island for imperiling the United States's budget by requiring hurricane relief funds, saying, "I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack."
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., rebuffed Trump's comments about how the Puerto Rican hurricane response is affecting the federal budget, noting that the president never made such comments in Texas or Florida following hurricanes there.
"Mr. President, enough," said Schumer, whose state has the largest population of Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States. "Stop blaming Puerto Rico for the storm that devastated their shores. Roll up your sleeves and get the response on track."
Schumer added: "When one part of the country has trouble, the rest of the country reaches out and says, 'We're going to help you.'"
Trump's response to Maria offers a sharp contrast with his actions in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged Southeast Texas. Trump visited Texas twice in the week after Harvey's landfall, first in his role as commander in chief, checking in on relief efforts, and then as a "consoler in chief," offering hugs and prayers.
Though Trump and his administration initially offered a flurry of action as Maria tore through Puerto Rico, the president then effectively went dark, decamping for a long weekend at his private club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
The president at points also seemed to blame Puerto Ricans themselves for their plight, lashing out at the mayor of San Juan - after she pleaded on cable television for the federal government to "save us from dying" - for her "poor leadership ability" and writing on Twitter that the island's citizens "want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort."
Trump's visit comes as he is facing yet another tragedy not of his own making: a shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas that left at least 59 people dead and hundreds more injured. The mass shooting is the deadliest attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. Trump is scheduled to visit Las Vegas on Wednesday.
Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat who was governor of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, said that while Trump "has the oddest responses," his comments in Puerto Rico did not surprise her - and she hoped that he would learn more about the needs of the territory during the visit.
"You've got a lot of difficulty out there. It is more challenging. He is correct in all of those assessments, and I think that's what he should have initially acknowledged within a sympathetic context - that we are struggling with you, for you," Blanco said. "Just give them that support."
She added: "When people are in pain because of a disaster, leaders need to acknowledge that pain. 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."
After Trump's impromptu remarks to officials, his motorcade drove along a highway lined with broken highway dividers and hundreds of downed trees. He took a walking tour of Guaynabo, a municipality south of San Juan, stopping to pose for photos with locals and chat about the hurricane and basketball. As he finished talking with one family, he told them: "Have a good time."
Trump also stopped by a church to meet with dozens of locals who asked for selfies, 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. At one point, he started tossing rolls of paper towels into the crowd as if they were basketballs.
The president, who was accompanied by the first lady, is not expected to stray far from San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital and largest city, where recovery is much farther along than much of the rest of the territory. He has met with local officials, including Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico, and is expected to meet with Gov. Kenneth Mapp of the U.S. Virgin Islands, along with senior military personnel on the ground.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been deeply critical of the government's relief efforts and whom Trump has criticized on Twitter, also joined Trump for his first briefing on the island. On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Cruz had been invited to participate in Trump's visit. But the mayor's name did not appear on the president's public schedule, and it was not clear until Tuesday morning that Trump would encounter Cruz.
Trump's mixed reviews for his response so far, however, did not stop him from lavishing praise on himself and his administration. As the president, clad in a black Windbreaker and khakis, departed the White House, he said Cruz has "come back a long way," before returning to one his favorite topics - himself and his own performance.
"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."
At the briefing in Puerto Rico, Trump used these words to describe members of his administration in the room with him: "A-plus," "fantastic," "unbelievable," "great," "amazing" and "special."
Trump thanked Rosselló, the governor, for positive comments he had made about the administration's work in Puerto Rico, saying, "He has said we have done an incredible job, and that's the truth."
And the president asked Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico's sole congressional representative, to repeat some of the praise she had shared in television interviews.
"She was saying such nice things about all of the people that have worked so hard," Trump said. "Jennifer, do you think you could say a little bit what you said about us today? And it's not about me, it's about these incredible people, from the military to FEMA, to first responders. I mean, I've never seen people working so hard in my life."
After González-Colón finished speaking and thanked Trump for his help, the president responded: "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."