President Trump held a news conference with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Thursday. In it, Trump rated his own response to the devastation that Hurricane Maria caused the island a "10" — out of 10.
But this was hardly the most surprising or informative response to come from the news conference. That's not just because Trump always gives himself the most positive reviews possible — he already rated his hurricane-relief efforts as “tremendous,” “amazing,” “great” and an A-plus — but because of what happened when he asked Rosselló to sign off on his self-evaluation.
Here's the exchange:
TRUMP: Governor, I just want to maybe ask you a question, because for the spirit of these people that have worked so hard and so long, like Tom [Bossert] and like Brock [Long] and like so many others. Did the United States, did our government — when we came in, did we do a great job? Military? First-responders? FEMA? Did we do a great job?
ROSSELLÓ: You responded immediately, sir, and — and you did so. You know, Tom and Brock, they have been on the phone with me essentially every — every day since the disaster.
We recognize that there are some logistical limitations that we have in Puerto Rico. We didn't have the ports open for a couple of days. We didn't have the airports working [at] full capacity until about a day or two ago. So that was always a very limiting step, but if you consider that we've gotten — even with those obstacles, we've gotten about 15,000 DOD personnel in Puerto Rico, about 2,000 FEMA personnel, HHS and others. The response is there.
Do we need to do a lot more? Of course we do. And I think everybody over here recognizes there's a lot of work to be done in Puerto Rico. But with your leadership, sir, and with everybody here, we're committed to achieving that in the long — in the long run.
Rosselló is a politician, and judging only by this answer, he's a pretty good one. Trump put him on the spot, asking him a direct question and hoping Rosselló would provide him a full endorsement.
But then Roselló ... didn't. The things he said weren't critical and won't cause problems with Trump (which Rosselló seems to be studiously trying to avoid), but his response was also hardly a full-throated bit of vouching for the federal response. Trump asked him if the federal response was “great,” and Rosselló's response was not “yes”; it was basically commending the federal government for recognizing the situation right away and communicating effectively.
Those are elements of a strong response, certainly. But Rosselló's comments are a little like being asked if the baseball pitcher did well and saying, “He prepared really well, was ready to pitch, and was on the same page with the catcher.” All of those things may be true, but that pitcher might still walk six batters and give up four home runs.
This is not the first time Rosselló has offered these kinds of comments. When Trump visited Puerto Rico and they did a photo op two weeks ago, Rosselló also commended the federal government for being responsive and in communication, but didn't exactly say the response was fantastic.
That may not be because he doesn't think the response has been bad, mind you. Perhaps he is just trying to make sure he doesn't give Trump too much credit only to see the situation deteriorate — or to see Trump to take his positive marks, call it a success and head home. Perhaps he wants Trump to fight for his fuller approval, just as Trump likes to make others do with him.
And it's undoubtedly good politics to let Trump think you are giving him a thumbs-up while giving yourself plausible deniability that you actually did. Rosselló is trying to ply Trump with sugar, while San Juan's mayor has used vinegar.
But a closer look at Rosselló's comments shows he's not exactly giving the federal response a "10" yet — even as Trump clearly craves it.