President Trump on Tuesday strongly defended his response to the devastation in Puerto Rico, saying his administration was earning “tremendous reviews” even as fresh news reports from the hurricane-ravaged island showed an unabated humanitarian crisis.
“Everybody has said it’s amazing the job that we’ve done in Puerto Rico,” Trump said during a Rose Garden news conference. “We’re very proud of it. . . . This was a place that was destroyed. I think we’ve done a very good job.”
The president’s rosy assessment came amid mounting criticism that he has appeared far less engaged in the recovery efforts of a U.S. territory with a long history of unequal treatment than in those in Texas and Florida after the recent hurricanes in those states.
Trump announced plans to visit Puerto Rico next week to get a firsthand look at the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which killed at least 16 people and left most of the island’s 3.4 million people without power and facing serious shortages of food and medical supplies.
Just weeks after earning high marks for his response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Trump now faces multiple political risks related to Maria as the scope of the decimation becomes clearer by the day.
“His treatment of Puerto Rico gives the impression that he doesn’t consider it as much of a part of the United States as Texas and Florida,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University.
Questions about Trump’s engagement have been fueled by what critics see as the president’s obsession with NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, a feud that has dominated Trump’s Twitter feed, often a good gauge of what is grabbing his attention.
On Monday night, Trump tweeted about Puerto Rico for the first time since Maria made landfall last Wednesday, and many were taken aback by a tone that seemed to be blaming the island for its plight. In his tweets, Trump highlighted Puerto Rico’s long-running debt problems and antiquated electrical grid.
Naftali said that in his responses to Harvey and Irma, Trump and his team seemed to have learned the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that stained the presidency of George W. Bush after his detached response.
“Trump wanted the message to be loud and clear: ‘We care,’ ” Naftali said. “That attention has been sorely lacking in the case of Hurricane Maria.”
Those questioning Trump’s interest in helping Puerto Rico have included an array of Democratic politicians, such as his vanquished presidential rival Hillary Clinton, and numerous celebrities such as pop singer Marc Anthony.
“Do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico,” Anthony, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, wrote in a tweet this week. “We are American citizens too.”
At the White House earlier Tuesday, Trump insisted to reporters that “Puerto Rico is very important to me.”
“The people are fantastic people,” he said. “I grew up in New York, so I know many people from Puerto Rico. I know many Puerto Ricans. And these are great people, and we have to help them.”
Trump also told reporters that he is waiting until Tuesday to visit the island because “it’s the earliest I can go because of the first responders, and we don’t want to disrupt the relief efforts.” He added that he will also visit the U.S. Virgin Islands, which experienced extensive damage as well.
On Twitter on Tuesday, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló posted a photo of him briefing Trump via video conference call and “thanked him for his leadership, quick response & commitment to our people.”
Even before Tuesday’s news conference with visiting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, Trump was drawing flak from those who said he is understating the challenges ahead.
One of Trump’s tweets Monday night asserted that “food, water and medical are top priorities — and doing well.”
That prompted a rebuke on the Senate floor Tuesday from Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“With all due respect, President Trump, the relief efforts are not doing well, they’re not close to good enough,” Schumer said. “All any American needs to do is open a newspaper or turn on a TV to know that Puerto Rico is not doing well.”
Journalist Geraldo Rivera delivered the same message Tuesday morning during a report on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” — typically a friendly venue for Trump.
Reporting from Puerto Rico, Rivera read the president’s tweet and then added: “I don’t think they are doing well, with all due respect to the president.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) — who surprised Washington later Tuesday by announcing that he would not seek reelection — also was critical of the administration’s response. Asked if he thought the response was sufficient in light of the widespread devastation, Corker said: “No, I do not. This is an emergency.”
Officials say they are facing numerous logistical challenges, including damage to airports and ports. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency says its response has been robust, including the deployment of 10,000 federal workers.
“We’ve gotten A-pluses on Texas and in Florida, and we will also on Puerto Rico,” Trump said. “But the difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It’s a big ocean, it’s a very big ocean. And we’re doing a really good job.”
“We have shipped massive amounts of food and water and supplies to Puerto Rico, and we are continuing to do it on an hourly basis,” he added. “But that island was hit as hard as you could hit.”
Barry Bennett, a Republican operative who advised Trump during the general election, said Trump faces a messaging challenge, given the widespread devastation. While he wants to be sensitive to people who have lost everything, he also wants to praise the efforts of relief workers, many of whom are working around the clock without sleep, Bennett said. “They can be doing a good job, but that doesn’t mean the problem is solved,” he said.
Some also argued that the American public has not gotten a full sense of the extent of the federal response.
Miguel Soto-Class, president of the Center for a New Economy in San Juan, said the federal presence in the capital is “palpable.” The airport was filled with law enforcement personnel from the Department of Homeland Security on a recent visit, he said. The sky buzzes with Air Force planes and Coast Guard choppers.
“I’m no Trump fan, but at this point I don’t have anything negative to say about what we’ve seen so far,” said Soto-Class, whose think tank plans to lobby Congress so Puerto Rico gets the maximum funds available to rebuild after Maria.
As residents of an unincorporated U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but are not permitted to vote in federal elections, nor do they pay federal taxes.
Both major parties, however, allow Puerto Rico to participate in their presidential nominating processes. Last year, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) prevailed in the Republican primary, winning 70 percent of the vote, with Trump lagging far behind at 13 percent.
Rubio, who visited the island Monday, said at a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday that Maria requires a “more aggressive” response from the federal government.
Because of Puerto Rico’s location amid the Caribbean islands, it is often forgotten by policymakers in Washington and by residents’ fellow Americans. Recent polls find less than half of Americans are aware that people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens.
Before Maria, much of the recent news from Puerto Rico that trickled to the mainland related to its financial woes. The island has been struggling for years with a recession and debt that has grown to more than $70 billion.
The crisis was caused by a variety of factors, including mismanagement by territorial authorities and dysfunctional policies from Washington. The commonwealth, whose debt is held by a variety of mainstream investment firms, as well as hedge funds that invest in distressed debt, filed for a form of bankruptcy earlier this year.
Democrats and advocates for Puerto Ricans’ rights have been on alert for signs of lackluster federal efforts in Puerto Rico.
Amilcar Antonio Barreto, an associate professor at Northeastern University who specializes in Puerto Rico politics, accused the Trump administration of treating the territory with an attitude of “benign neglect” and criticized the president for failing to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis unfolding there in the aftermath of Maria.
“It’s quite clear that for the White House, a public relations issue in the NFL takes far more precedence than a disaster in Puerto Rico,” he said.
During his Rose Garden news conference Tuesday, Trump said the NFL issue had not been a distraction.
“I wasn’t preoccupied with the NFL,” Trump said. “I was ashamed of what was taking place.”
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the recent hurricanes as Irene instead of Irma.