JERSEY CITY — From a glass balcony overlooking the 14th hole of the Presidents Cup golf event, President Trump on Sunday conveyed a clear statement: He would not be intimidated by the outcry over his administration’s response to the devastation on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
His decision to preside over the Presidents Cup, stopping on the way back to Washington from his own luxury golf club in Bedminster, N.J., is likely to further the outcry from some Puerto Rico officials, congressional Democrats, civic leaders and celebrities that he has compounded a slow federal response to the devastation in Puerto Rico with a personal insensitivity to the suffering.
Trump’s visit here was all about optics, conveying the confidence of a leader. Wearing a sport coat and a white collared shirt but no tie, the president waved at a crowd in the distance and pumped his fist when a group of VIPs mingling in a courtyard under the balcony noticed him. Then, Trump turned to chat with his hosts — PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan and his predecessor, Tim Finchem.
At the end, in a grand gesture at the awards presentation, he acknowledged the victims of hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, dedicating the trophy to “all those people who went through so much.”
“If you look today and see what’s happening, how horrible it is, but we have it under really great control,” Trump said.
A man in the crowd shouted: “You don’t give a [expletive] about Puerto Rico.” But Trump fans cheered.
Every president must strike a balance between carrying on with public schedules, including vacations and getaway weekends, when a crisis strikes somewhere in the country.
President Barack Obama was criticized for golfing during a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard in 2014 moments after addressing reporters in the wake of U.S. journalist James Foley’s videotaped execution by the Islamic State. He also came under fire for a delayed visit to the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In 2004, President George W. Bush faced a public backlash for remaining on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., for more than a day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. His administration faced months of criticism and congressional review for lack of advance planning and a delayed response to the storm.
Trump has not visited Puerto Rico but has engaged in Twitter attacks on Puerto Rico officials who have criticized his administration.
The president and first lady Melania Trump are scheduled to visit the island Tuesday, with a possible stop in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which also suffered hurricane damage.
Trump has spent 68 days at his golf courses since taking office, and his plans did not change as the ferocious storms moved in. When Hurricane Maria made landfall Sept. 20, Trump issued an emergency declaration and called local officials, and then his administration went silent for four days. That weekend, he jetted to Bedminster for a long weekend at his club.
On Sunday, at the club again, he began the day tweeting, offering more fodder for the “Saturday Night Live” comedy writers who had mercilessly roasted him the night before.
“We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico,” he wrote on Twitter. “Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military.”
He had already accused San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of “poor leadership” for her attacks on his administration’s response, suggesting that she was conspiring with Democrats to make him look bad.
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and professor at Rice University, said Trump’s use of Twitter in a crisis “makes him seem coldhearted, callous and out of touch.”
“He thinks it make him seem multisided, but the takeaway is that he’s tone deaf to the suffering of people in the situation,” Brinkley said.
While Trump tweeted, White House aides continued to fight back against the criticism, emphasizing that there are 10,000 federal workers on the island.
“More boots on the ground in Puerto Rico helping Americans in need,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “You are not alone and will not be forgotten #PRStrong.”
In an internal memo, Homeland Security adviser Thomas Bossert, who has been the point man for the White House on the series of hurricanes that have struck Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Puerto Rico, delivered a pep talk for his colleagues. Having recently returned from the island, Bossert said it remains an “urgent situation,” but he emphasized: “The storm caused these problems, not our response to it. We have pushed about as much stuff and people through a tiny hole in as short a time frame as possible.”
In the memo, first reported by Axios, Bossert added that he hopes to “turn the corner on our public communications” and suggested that aides focus on the “bright future that lies ahead for Puerto Rico.”
As for Trump, not long after he arrived at the golf tournament, he issued another tweet, pledging that he “won’t fail” to tame North Korea’s nuclear threat.
But on the golf course, Trump seemed in good spirits. He shook hands with members of the international team and then gave handshakes and hugs to the U.S. team, embracing golfer Dustin Johnson.
“USA! USA!” the crowd cheered, as announcer Steve Sands introduced the president to award the golden cup. Afterward, Trump took photos with Johnson’s wife, Paulina Gretzky, daughter of retired hockey star Wayne Gretzky, and others.
And as the sun was setting, the president strolled off the course to another round of cheers.