President Donald Trump attacked the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Saturday, writing on Twitter that she and other leaders on the storm-ravaged territory “want everything to be done for them.”
Trump’s early morning broadsides came after San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz slammed the administration’s response repeatedly on Fridayamid growing media coverage of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.
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“We are dying here,” Cruz said in an emotional plea on Friday. “If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy.”
Her plea and others like it have led critics to liken Trump’s response to that of George W. Bush in New Orleans after Katrina struck that city a decade ago.
In his latest fight with an opponent few other politicians would engage — waged from his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club — Trump dismissed Cruz as a partisan.
“The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help.”
Trump added that the Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”
Democrats were aghast. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, released a statement calling Trump’s tweets “abhorrent, baseless, and… beneath the dignity of the office of the Presidency.”
“Lives are on the line and people are dying,” he added.
But the White House remained undeterred by the criticism.Trump’s White House social media director jumped in to join the attacks on the San Juan mayor, calling Cruz a “hater” and “the perfect example of an opportunistic politician.”
Cruz responded in an MSNBC interview Saturday, dismissing Trump’s criticisms and saying she had no time for “distractions.”
“I am not going to be distracted by small comments, by politics, by petty issues,” she said, insisting her criticism of Trump had not been motivated by partisanship.
“Actually, I was asking for help,” she said. “I wasn’t saying anything nasty about the president. But don’t take my word for it, General Buchanan, a three star general has said as one of the first comments he’s made about the Puerto Rico situation that he doesn’t have enough troops and he doesn’t have enough equipment of what he needs to get the situation under control.”
Trump last week tapped named Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan to lead the disaster recovery effort. Buchanan said on Friday that the number of U.S. troops assisting is “not enough” and that more manpower and equipment like helicopters were on the way to the island, where at least 16 people are confirmed dead from the storm—a number experts believe will grow significantly.
In his Saturday tweets, which began at 7:19 a.m., Trump also directed his ire at media outlets that have dedicated increasing amounts of air time to the suffering and chaos on the pummeled island.
“Fake News CNN and NBC are going out of their way to disparage our great First Responders as a way to ‘get Trump.’ Not fair to FR or effort!” he wrote. “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!”
Ten days after Maria knocked out the island’s power, communications system and some roadways, Americans there are still struggling to get supplies and phone service.
But the Trump administration has touted its response as a success. Acting Homeland Security Sect. Elaine Duke on Thursday called the response “a good news story.”
That comment only inflamed frustrations on the island of 3.4 million.
“Damn it, this is not a good news story,” Cruz told CNN on Friday. “This is a people are dying story. This is a life or death story. This is a there’s a truck-load of stuff that cannot be taken to people story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water.”
Trump’s natural instinct to slap back at critics has caused him problems in the past. His feud with a Gold Star family during the 2016 campaign proved damaging, as have his repeated attacks on Republican allies in Congress.
Even as Trump defends his response on Twitter, the White House is fighting against the narrative that it has been slow to act.
The White House’s Saturday schedule lists five phone calls Trump will make from Bedminster to discuss the storm response with key players in the effort, including Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Trump also reiterated his plan to visit the island on Tuesday, saying he would “hopefully” stop off in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Cruz, a liberal Trump critic, initially avoided tussling with the president for fear that it would become a distraction to relief efforts and “not productive.”
Asked by POLITICO last week what message she would have for Trump, Cruz cited a Biblical verse in which Jesus tells Judas: “What you are going to do, do quickly.”
But as the week unfolded, Puerto Rico officials felt their pleas for faster action and less red tape went unheeded. Then, on Thursday, Trump touted the recovery effort on Twitter, writing, “Governor said ‘great job!’” That was an apparent reference to Cruz, who finally let loose with harsh criticism.
Behind the sharp debate over disaster response are internal political tensions on the island. Cruz may run against Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who is up for re-election next year, and who taken pains to avoid publicly criticizing Trump. She is developing strong ties to Florida Democrats, and met Wednesday with Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, a likely candidate for governor, when he delivered 7,000 pounds of relief supplies to the island.
The following day, Republican Gov. Rick Scott—a top Trump surrogate—met with Rossello in Puerto Rico to discuss relief efforts. Scott lunched with Trump the next day.
Trust and security levels are so low on the island that after Levine’s supplies arrived at San Juan’s airport, Cruz waited on the tarmac for two hours to ensure they were loaded onto trucks driven by her loyalists for delivery to the distribution hub at the civic center.