Washington, D.C.

Trump lobs praise, and paper towels, to Puerto Rico storm victims

President compares death toll with 'real catastrophe'
President Donald Trump hands out supplies to people impacted by Hurricane Maria at Calvary Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.
President Donald Trump hands out supplies to people impacted by Hurricane Maria at Calvary Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump ventured on Tuesday to a storm-ravaged American island territory where residents have felt neglected by their government, telling local officials that they should be proud that, so far, only 16 people are known to have died in Hurricane Maria.

“Sixteen versus in the thousands,” Trump said, comparing the storm’s certified death toll to the 1,833 killed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. “You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.”

It was a well-worn routine for a president on his fourth visit to a disaster zone in two months: a pep rally-like briefing with officials in an aircraft hangar, a quick drive past twisted houses and uprooted trees and a brief, friendly encounter with victims of the destruction.

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And like his earlier travels, it had its peculiar moments: He also gently tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd that gathered to see him at Calvary Chapel, outside the island’s capital, San Juan.

This time, however, Trump flew into a different kind of turbulence. Over the weekend, the president lashed out at the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, after she complained that the federal response in Puerto Rico had fallen short of the responses in Texas and Florida. She was not mollified after meeting him.

“The first part of the meeting was a public-relations situation,” Cruz said in an interview with CNN about the briefing she attended with the president. While she said the White House staff was helpful and receptive, Trump’s communications style sometimes “gets in the way.”

“I would hope that the president of the United States stops spouting out comments that really hurt the people of Puerto Rico,” she said, “because, rather than commander in chief, he sort of becomes miscommunicator in chief.”

Trump greeted the mayor but did not invite her to speak, recognizing instead Puerto Rico’s governor, whom the president said “did not play politics,” and its congressional representative, who lavishly applauded the administration’s performance.

“Thank you, Mr. President, for all you have been doing for the island,” said the representative, Jenniffer González-Colón, after declaring that Washington had sent everything Puerto Rico needed.

“You were really generous,” Trump replied. “It’s so hard when you have men and women that have worked so hard and so long, and many of them came from two other catastrophic hurricanes.”

The president then went around the table, praising the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, military commanders and a half-dozen members of his Cabinet who accompanied him to Puerto Rico — which was already facing about $74 billion in debt even before the hurricane hit.

Singling out Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, Trump said, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’re throwing our budget out of whack.” Looking around the room for his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, who was standing in the back, Trump said, “Boy, is he watching.”

Before leaving the White House on Tuesday, Trump told reporters that Cruz was now mostly satisfied.

“I think she’s come back a long way,” the president said. “I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done.” He asserted that the relief effort was as competent as those in Texas and Florida, and he added, “It’s actually a much tougher situation.”

Trump, however, repeated his earlier criticism that Puerto Ricans were not doing enough to help themselves. Despite the roads being cleared and communications being re-established, he said, truck drivers were not transporting enough supplies. “We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks,” he said. “On a local level, they have to give us more help.”

On Saturday, after Cruz angrily disputed the Trump administration’s assertion that the relief effort was going well, he said in a Twitter post that she had been instructed by Democrats to be “nasty to Trump,” and added that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them.”

White House officials were nervous that Trump would be set off again if he were greeted by protesters in Puerto Rico. As late as Monday afternoon, some aides were urging the president to delay the visit, which comes a day before he was scheduled to fly to Las Vegas to meet with law enforcement officials and victims of the mass shooting there.

There were a few other signs of discontent on Tuesday. As Trump’s motorcade drove from an air base to a church — passing hundreds of downed trees — it also passed a woman clutching a placard that said, “You are a bad hombre,” according to a pool report.

Sitting in a traffic jam near the San Juan airport before the arrival of Air Force One, a resident, Jaime Vega, disputed Trump’s claim that Puerto Ricans should be doing more to help their own recovery. “We are doing,” he said. “It’s only now that they are doing something.”

“Let him come so he can see what there really is, and so nobody can tell him made-up stories,” said Vega, an accountant.

Outside a bar in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, an hour after Air Force One departed Tuesday afternoon, people debated what Trump’s visit might have accomplished.

“He was just measuring Puerto Rico by the amount of dead compared to Katrina,” said José Tormos, 62, an employee of the local government in Guaynabo. “FEMA’s response has been too slow.”

Others have noted that the actual death toll from Hurricane Maria may rise significantly, given that the current, certified number is outdated and that the island government’s record-keeping ability has been damaged by the storm.

Marlene Martinez, 51, an accountant, said, “It’s just an example of how we’re treated like second-class citizens.”

Others were more concerned about the reconstruction of the island and their own precarious situations than Trump’s comments.

“The people of Puerto Rico don’t care whether Trump is the god or the devil,” said Edgardo Tormos, 58. “This is about the recovery of Puerto Rico.”

Still, others seemed happy just to have the president in their midst. In a 20-minute visit to Calvary Chapel, an English-speaking evangelical church that has become a collection center for supplies, Trump shook hands, took selfies and offered encouragement in the chapel’s sanctuary.

“For us, it’s really nothing political,” said Naitsa Marrero, an administrative assistant who helped organize the stop. “Puerto Rico needs help, and often this type of thing sheds light on what’s happening here — a crisis.”

Jason Dennett, the church’s pastor, said he welcomed the idea of a visit when the Secret Service contacted him five days ago. “He offered his help to the people of Puerto Rico,” Dennett said. “He said he was here to help and that the support would continue.”

Trump boarded a Navy amphibious assault ship for meetings with the governors of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The White House asked the Virgin Islands’ governor, Kenneth E. Mapp, to fly to Puerto Rico because of the logistical complications of flying the president to those islands, parts of which have been severely damaged.

Still, Mapp told him, “because of your commitment, Mr. President, we’re talking about opening schools and welcoming cruise ships back.”

Trump has gotten used to being a kind of second responder, having traveled to Texas and Florida after two other hurricanes over the past two months. Since the weekend, Trump has sharply scaled back his Twitter posts about the hurricanes or other potentially charged issues.

But speaking to reporters on Tuesday, he continued to emphasize the government’s performance rather than the plight of the victims.

“In Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus,” Trump said. “And I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico.”

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