Trump plans to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday
Residents are grappling with widespread power outages and a lack of water
President Donald Trump launched an attack on San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on Saturday for criticizing the White House’s hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico, accusing her of “poor leadership” and suggesting that the island’s residents are not doing enough to help themselves.
“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,” the President tweeted from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is spending the weekend. “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. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
The spectacle of Trump’s comments slamming Cruz and others on their own response efforts as Puerto Rico struggles to deal with disaster that left millions without power and with limited access to water – and as Trump comes under fire for what some have called a slow federal reaction – sparked a firestorm of reaction online, including from the creator of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, who said that Trump was going “straight to hell.”
“You’re going straight to hell, @realDonald Trump. No long lines for you,” tweeted Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “Someone will say, ‘Right this way, sir.’ They’ll clear a path.”
Later Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence defended the President’s remarks in an interview with Orlando television station WKMG.
“Well, it is frustrating, I expect, to millions of Americans to hear rhetoric coming out from some in Puerto Rico, particularly the mayor of San Juan, instead of focusing on results,” Pence said.
Pence said he learned that “while our joint field operation at the convention center in San Juan has more than 1,000 personnel working out in a football field environment, the mayor of San Juan has only visited our joint field operation once.” He added that he would encourage her to come alongside Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and other officials “who are focusing on continuing to make the steady progress that we are making in Puerto Rico.”
In the series of early-morning tweets, Trump also lauded the federal government’s response on the island, which is still grappling with the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria. The President said that the 10,000 federal workers there are doing a “fantastic job.”
“The military and first responders, despite no electric, roads, phones etc., have done an amazing job,” he wrote. “Puerto Rico was totally destroyed.”
Trump’s early praise of relief efforts, however, does not appear to match the reality on the ground. Puerto Rico, which is home to 3.4 million people, is facing a humanitarian crisis, and many of its people remain without power and water. Sixteen people have died, according to government officials, but that number could well rise with the full range of devastation not yet known.
In an interview with MSNBC, Yulín Cruz said she wasn’t making “nasty comments” about Trump in remarks earlier this week criticizing the administration’s statements lauding the response, adding that her only goal was to save lives.
“I was asking for help,” she said. “I wasn’t saying anything nasty about the President.”
Trump’s comments come ahead of a planned visit to Puerto Rico on Tuesday. The President is scheduled to speak with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long, Rosselló and other Puerto Rican officials later Saturday.
Rosselló said Saturday morning that his previous conversations with Trump didn’t square up with the President’s tweets and that Trump had “reiterated his commitment with this effort.”
“I do reiterate that the only way for this to work is for us to have collaboration,” Rosselló said. “And let me stress this, I am committed to collaborating with everybody. This is a point where we can’t look at small differences. We can’t establish differences based on politics.”
While Trump and other administration officials have repeatedly lauded the federal government’s response to Maria, some have said that the administration has moved more slowly than it did in responding to the recent storms that battered Texas and Florida.
Other critics have drawn comparisons to President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, particularly given the race and class of most victims in both disasters. Katrina, of course, became a political disaster for the Bush presidency.
When asked for his reaction to President Trump’s tweets, Russel Honoré, the retired general appointed by Bush to take over the federal response to Katrina in 2005, said he had none.
“I have no reaction. The mayor’s living on a cot, and I hope the President has a good day of golf,” he told CNN.
Earlier this week, Honoré told CNN that the President’s response to Maria shows that he doesn’t care about the poor or people of color.
“The President has shown again he don’t give a damn about poor people,” Honoré told CNN’s Erin Burnett. “He doesn’t give a damn about people of color. And the SOB that rides around in Air Force One is denying services needed by the people of Puerto Rico. I hate to say it that way but there’s no other way to say it.”
In his interview Saturday with WKMG, Pence took issue with Honore’s characterization.
“Well, I would suggest, with great respect to that retired general and respect for the work he’s done in the past, that the Department of Defense – 16 different Navy ships in the region, the USS Comfort will be there in a matter of days,” Pence said. “I was able to inform Governor Rosselló the USS Wasp will be arriving with 16 helicopters tomorrow. We have literally 10,000 federal officials on the ground, 4,500 National Guard have been there from early on, more are on the way.”
A ‘good news story’
Thursday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke also stirred controversy after she told reporters she was “very satisfied” with the federal response since Maria made landfall, calling it a “good news story.”
“I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane,” Duke said.
That prompted a sharp retort from San Juan’s mayor in a CNN interview.
“This is, damn it, this is not a good news story,” Mayor Cruz said. “This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a ‘life-or-death’ story. This is, ‘there’s a truckload of stuff that cannot be taken to people’ story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen.”
Dan Scavino, the White House social media director, tweeted on Saturday that Yulín Cruz “has been hating on @realDonaldTrump long before he was our President.”
In a separate tweet, Scavino described San Juan’s mayor as “the perfect example of an opportunistic politician.”
In his own Saturday morning tweets, Trump also lashed out at the media for what he said was biased coverage, saying that the “Fake News Networks are working overtime in Puerto Rico.”
“Fake News CNN and NBC are going out of their way to disparage our great First Responders as a way to ‘get Trump,’” he tweeted. “Not fair to FR or effort!”
Democratic lawmakers react
Trump’s comments were criticized by a number of Democrats, who took issue with the President’s rhetoric in the middle of a domestic disaster.
Rep. Al Green of Texas told CNN’s Ana Cabrera on Saturday afternoon that he thought Trump’s comments showed he cared less about Puerto Rico because it was unimportant to his reelection and added that he saw racial undertones in the President’s remarks.
“If they were all Anglos, I don’t believe the President would have the attitude that he has, because you don’t hear that kind of dog whistle, of people not wanting to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when the people are Anglos,” Green said. “That’s something reserved for people of color.”
Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, meanwhile, called for an apology from the President.
“First thing Trump should do on Tues when he visits #PuertoRico for the first time since #HurricaneMaria devastated the island is apologize,” Markey tweeted.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York called Trump’s remarks “offensive.”
“When millions in Puerto Rico are in crisis, the president should be better than this,” she tweeted.
Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat facing trial for federal bribery charges, tweeted that Trump should be doing more to help the territory, suggesting his response might be slower because Puerto Rico has no electoral votes.
“I know Puerto Rico doesn’t get Electoral College votes, Mr. President, but there are real Americans there suffering. Time to do more,” he wrote.
In another tweet, Menendez declared the situation in Puerto Rico “worse” than Hurricane Katrina.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said Puerto Rico was in “crisis” and Trump should “stop playing politics with their lives.”
“The definition of ‘poor leadership’ is sitting at your golf club while millions of US citizens beg for your help, @realDonaldTrump,” she tweeted.
Don Beyer, a Democratic representative from Virginia, noted in a series of tweets that the President had ignored the people of Puerto Rico for days, instead “picking a fight with athletes while a humanitarian crisis grew in Puerto Rico.”
“You focused on aid efforts in TX & FL but ignored Puerto Rico. Now you attack San Juan’s mayor for saying ‘people are dying.’ THEY ARE DYING,” he wrote.
Amid the criticisms, Trump took to Twitter later Saturday afternoon to praise several Puerto Rican officials, including Rosselló; US Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp, an independent; and Republican Congresswoman Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon.
“#FakeNews critics are working overtime, but we’re getting great marks from the people that truly matter! #PRStrong” Trump wrote.
Trump continued to fault the news coverage of his administration’s response in tweets Saturday night.
“Because of #FakeNews my people are not getting the credit they deserve for doing a great job,” he wrote. “As seen here, they are ALL doing a GREAT JOB!”
At a news conference Saturday afternoon, Mapp said the vice president and his wife, Karen Pence, would arrive in St. Croix on Friday to assess the hurricane damage. He also said Trump did not rule out a visit to the territory during a phone call Saturday, but the President was trying to visit both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in one day, which posed logistical challenges.
FEMA said in a news release Saturday that urban search-and-rescue teams, working alongside local law enforcement, have scoured the island and rescued 843 people. In addition, 11 highways have been cleared, 70% of ports and 60% of gas stations are operating, and half of the grocery and big box stores are open, the release said.
While the release said power has been restored to 59 hospitals, FEMA official Alejandro de la Campa told reporters only 5% of electricity had been restored in the island as of Saturday.
The president of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, Elí Díaz Atienza, gave a breakdown of the water service restoration effort to San Juan radio station WIPR, saying water is running to about 55% of the city.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated throughout to reflect the full last name of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.