President Donald Trump brought a harsh political tone to Puerto Rico as he was briefed on the hurricane devastation, appearing to blame the U.S. territory for having “thrown our budget a little out of whack” and complimenting officials for sustaining only 16 deaths, compared with the much higher human toll of Hurricane Katrina.
“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,” Trump said in his first public remarks from the island Tuesday. “And that’s fine.”
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The president also appeared to boast that the death toll in Puerto Rico pales in comparison to the more than 1,800 fatalities that followed Katrina in 2005.
“We saved a lot of lives,” said Trump, who added that “every death is a horror” and broached what he called “a real catastrophe” in Katrina.
“Sixteen people versus in the thousands,” the president said, overstating Katrina’s death toll.
“You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together,” he told Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”
Trump came face to face Tuesday with the “politically motivated ingrates” he slammed on Twitter just days before, landingin Puerto Rico after spending much of the past week boasting about a wildly successful response effort that hasn’t matched the reality of the hurricane-ravaged island — and after picking a fight over the weekend with the San Juan mayor.
The visit comes as he’s also attempting to be soother-in-chief for the nation after a shooting in Las Vegas left at least 59 dead on Sunday night — the first time he’s had to navigate two disasters of national scope that are politically perilous for any president, but especially one prone to off-the-cuff riffs.
The Puerto Rico stop marks only the start of emotionally charged travels for Trump this week. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to travel to Las Vegas to meet with the families of victims of Sunday’s massacre.
Trump struck a somber tone in his first public comments on the deaths in Las Vegas, decrying the “act of pure evil” and calling for unity. On Tuesday, though, he traded the scripted and controlled setting of the East Room for a storm-ravaged island where more than half of the residents remain without access to drinking water and only 5 percent of the island has electricity.
But Trump will have to do more than just sing the praises of his own response to the storm.
“People don’t want to hear ‘Hey, we’re doing great,’ and they don’t want to hear, ‘Hey, we’re doing awful,’” said Tevi Troy, a senior George W. Bush aide who wrote a book, “Shall We Wake the President?”, about White House disaster response. What they want, Troy said, is concrete information about what’s being done to help them and how long it will take to get back to normal.
It’s an added bonus if federal and local elected officials show a united front, Troy added. He pointed to President Barack Obama’s famous visit to New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie after Superstorm Sandy days before the 2012 presidential election as evidence that such bipartisan accord is possible.
But while Trump had political allies at his side in Texas and Florida — where Govs. Greg Abbott and Rick Scott have been energetic supporters — he’s working alongside Democratic politicians who are for the most part strangers in Puerto Rico.
It is unclear whether Trump will meet with Cruz, the San Juan mayor. She has been invited to participate in Tuesday”s events, Sanders said Monday.
Trump appears to have learned lessons following his first visit to a disaster scene, when he was widely criticized for making a trip to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey that didn’t involve actually meeting with — or even mentioning — any victims. In a subsequent trip to Texas and a trip to Florida after Hurricane Irma, Trump met with people directly affected by the storm, giving out hugs and supplies at shelters.
Trump’s White House received generally high marks for its handling of Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida. But that narrative has changed as the full scope of devastation from Maria has come into view — and as Trump devoted his attention to picking a fight with the NFL over player protests during the national anthem.
“He seemed to be in full operational mode in Texas and Florida, and then his energy tapered off when it got to Puerto Rico,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University.
The initial poor handling was compounded by Trump’s weekend Twitter feud, he added.
“It made him look small, not big,” Brinkley said, and it potentially complicates the optics for Tuesday’s trip, when optics are of significant political importance. “It’s going to be extremely awkward. … The possibilities of being booed or hissed at are very large.”