Trump touted the 16-person death toll as low
Trump said officials can "be very proud of what's taken place"
President Donald Trump squarely focused on one task as he landed in Puerto Rico: portraying his administration’s response to the devastation on the still-recovering island as a tremendous success.
“We’ve only heard thank yous from the people of Puerto Rico,” Trump told reporters upon Air Force One’s return trip, when asked if he heard any constructive criticism while on the ground.
“That was a terrific visit, that visit was terrific,” he said.
But the day began with an awkward roundtable with federal and local officials, where Trump touted the federal response and offered praise for those who have been most complimentary to his administration, even as many residents on the island continued to lack access to basic services and criticized the federal response.
The President also appeared to jokingly blame the island and its 3.5 million residents for throwing the federal budget “a little out of whack.”
“I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” Trump said with a grin. “Because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico and that’s fine, we’ve saved a lot of lives.”
The President also told officials they should be “very proud” that only 16 people died in the hurricane – comparing the death toll to the more than a thousand who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
And even as he praised some of the island’s local officials, he focused squarely on the positive comments made about him and his administration’s response.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselo was called out for praise for “appreciating what we did.” The island’s representative in Congress, Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon, was thanked for saying “such nice things” – and asked to repeat her praise on Tuesday.
“Right from the beginning this governor did not play politics,” Trump said. “He was saying it how it was and he was giving us the highest ratings.”
One official Trump did not call out for praise was the mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, whom Trump criticized on Twitter over the weekend after she expressed frustration with the pace of the federal response.
Returning from Puerto Rico aboard Air Force One, Trump again suggested locals need to step up more to speed up the pace of recovery efforts, though he acknowledged the difficulty given that “a lot of them lost their homes.”
“We need more help at a local level,” Trump said, pointing to the need to distribute supplies throughout the island. “We need local help. And they’re helping. They’re really gearing up to help.”
As he thanked Gonzalez-Colon earlier on Tuesday, Trump asked her to “say a little something about what you said about us today,” before quickly catching himself and adding: “And it’s not about me, it’s about all of these incredible people from the military to FEMA to the first responders, I’ve never seen anyone work so hard.”
Trump did get the opportunity to see some of the damage Hurricane Maria wrought firsthand and met with some of the storm’s survivors.
After his roundtable meeting with federal and local officials, Trump headed to Guaynabo, Puerto Rico – just outside the capital of San Juan – where he walked from home to home, greeting residents in one of the more affluent neighborhoods where homes suffered no major damage, but piles of debris and downed trees littered the streets.
“We’re going to help you out,” Trump pledged to some of the residents.
Next, Trump arrived at Calvary Chapel, where he held up, handed out and tossed supplies while shaking hands with local residents – everything from a can of tinned chicken breast and a pack of batteries to a flashlight.
“There’s a lot of love in this room,” Trump said before he moved to handing out a pile of rice bags.
Then, offering his best basketball shot, the President began softly shooting rolls of paper towels into the crowd.
Trump’s trip to Puerto Rico came as frustration on the island mounted with the federal response to the storm as the island remained without power. Residents continue to struggle to get access to food and fuel nearly two weeks after the storm hit.
But in and around San Juan, much of the area was returning to a sense of normalcy, with power being reestablished in parts of the capital.
As he handed out supplies – including flashlights – just outside the capital, Trump remarked: “Flashlights. You don’t need ‘em anymore.”
That comment broke with the reality most of Puerto Rico still faces, where 93% of residents still had no power.