President Trump on Tuesday told Puerto Rico officials they should feel “very proud” they haven’t lost thousands 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 amid harsh criticism of the slow federal response to the natural disaster and after he praised himself earlier in the day for his administration’s “great job” and “A-plus” response to Hurricane Maria.
This is Trump’s first visit to Puerto Rico since the storm ravaged the island nearly two weeks ago.
“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.
Before Trump’s impromptu remarks, the president’s visit was intended to be highly scripted, including a briefing on relief efforts, a meeting with senior military personnel — as well as with Govs. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico and Kenneth Mapp of the U.S. Virgin Islands — and an opportunity to visit with people impacted by the storm and the Navy and Marine Corps.
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.
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.”
He also thanked Rosselló 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.”
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, N.J.
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.