Only a few paragraphs of Omarosa Manigault Newman’s book are about Puerto Rico. But their claims are significant: that President Donald Trump lacked empathy in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath and that the President and Chief of Staff John Kelly referred to Puerto Ricans in derogatory terms.
The result, the new book titled “Unhinged” alleges, was a slow and cavalier response to the devastation wrought, especially when compared to Trump’s swift and effective handling of the hurricanes in Texas and Florida weeks earlier.
Manigault Newman, a former senior White House adviser, wouldn’t specify what offensive terms the Trump administration allegedly used when referring to Puerto Ricans, even when pressed to do so during one of her many interviews to promote her book.
CNN has not independently verified her claims, and the White House did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
I was in Puerto Rico when the Category 4 storm tore through the island on September 20. I witnessed much of what the book describes about conditions and response on the ground unfold in real time. The White House has branded Manigault Newman a liar, and many have questioned her tactics, her motives and her accuracy. But based on what I witnessed in Puerto Rico and what I read in her book about the hurricane response, this might be one example where she got it right.
Here are three claims the book made and my analysis of their veracity.
Claim 1: Trump had a vendetta against the mayor of San Juan
In the book, Manigault Newman says that it would not surprise her if Trump was taking out his ire with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz on the people of Puerto Rico. “I would not put it past Trump to punish the people of Puerto Rico to teach that woman of color a lesson,” she wrote.
Indeed, the President did engage in a very public feud with one of the harshest and most vocal critics of his handling of the crisis. Yulin Cruz was a frequent presence on television and didn’t hold back her low opinion of Trump and his administration’s response.
“We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy,” Yulin Cruz said at one news conference.
Trump struck back swiftly and fiercely.
“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 on September 30 from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he was 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.”
Yulin Cruz told MSNBC she wasn’t saying anything nasty about the President; she just wanted help.
“Rather than being a commander-in-chief, he’s like a hater-in-chief. He continues to tweet his hate all over the place,” she later told CNN’s Don Lemon.
Claim 2: The administration’s response was too slow
Manigault Newman, who was fired by Kelly last December from her role as the White House Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison, also puts much of the blame for what she calls the administration’s “lethargic” response directly on the chief of staff. She says Kelly was slow to approve aid and that he blamed the island for its troubles following Maria.
In those crucial first days after the storm, I did not see any federal agencies leading a sustained rescue and recovery effort. Many Puerto Ricans were doing much of that work themselves, and as people grew more desperate and water became more scarce, I remember many reporters on the ground asking, “Where is the National Guard? Where is FEMA?”
When he was asked – six days after Maria hit – why no federal aid had yet reached Puerto Rico, Trump explained that it was difficult “because it’s on the island – it’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s out in the ocean. You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states.”
I saw local officials finally distributing FEMA-provided food for the first time more than a week after I arrived on the island, and not only did the meals mainly consist of sweets and ready-to-eat snack items, also described in Manigault Newman’s book, there were often not enough to go around.
In the immediate aftermath of Maria, the President gave himself and his administration a 10 – on a scale of 1 to 10 – for the hurricane response to Puerto Rico. But in a report issued last month, FEMA acknowledged that mistakes were made. The agency concluded it had vastly underestimated the island’s “insufficiently maintained infrastructure.”
Claim 3: Trump and Kelly lacked empathy
The former White House adviser wrote that in a national security meeting after the hurricane struck Puerto Rico, “(Kelly) said, ‘Their infrastructure was already screwed up,’ and suggested the bankrupt government was trying to exploit the hurricane to force the United States to rebuild their electrical grid.”