Almost half of Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump’s handling of the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, which was hit by a Category 4 hurricane two weeks ago.
Only 32 percent of U.S. citizens surveyed approve of the way Trump has handled the crisis so far, a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed. Approximately 49 percent disapprove of his administration’s relief efforts, a notable shift from the response to the White House’s recent handling of fallout from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida; in that instance, 48 percent were in approval, and 27 percent expressed disapproval, according to the AP/NORC poll.
“He didn’t do a tremendous job in the states, but it’s not quite as disturbing and horrific as his response in Puerto Rico,” 34-year-old Tara Blesh-Boren, a registered Independent from Lincoln, Nebraska, told the Associated Press. “He is so busy getting his ego involved in these ridiculous back-and-forth arguments about things that don’t matter to anyone but him that he is really not managing our country.”
Other respondents said they were disappointed not only in the slowness of the White House’s response but in the president’s constant references to Puerto Rico’s debt and the high cost of hurricane relief. Some also highlighted Trump’s seeming inability to comprehend the nationality of Puerto Ricans, who, as residents of a U.S. territory, are U.S. citizens without full voting rights.
“It took him how long to get to Puerto Rico?” said Bree Harris, a 25-year-old Californian, who also fears Trump “didn’t even know that Puerto Rico was an island that was part of America.”
After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico two weeks ago, the president failed to give the disaster his full and immediate attention, instead targeting the NFL protests on Twitter and tweeting occasionally about critics of the Republican health care repeal effort. He shifted focus to the crisis later, following criticism from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, whose emotional pleas for help went viral late last week.
“I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out logistics for a small island,” Cruz said. “I am asking the President of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives.”
She added, “If we don’t get the food and water into peoples’ hands, what we are going to see is something close to a genocide.”
Cruz also refuted comments from acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine C. Duke, who told reporters last Thursday that relief efforts were going well. “It is really a good news story, in terms of our ability to reach people,” Duke said at the time.
Cruz, who learned of Duke’s comments during a CNN interview, reacted with anger.
“I’m sorry, but that really upsets me and frustrates me. Frankly, it’s an irresponsible statement,” she said. “Damn it, this is not a ‘good’ news story. This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a life or death story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water.”
Cruz’s words went over poorly with Trump, who attacked the mayor on Twitter while accusing Puerto Ricans of laziness.
“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 wrote. “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. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”
Trump’s comments, which many have suggested were racially loaded and rooted in stereotypes about the Latinx community, went over poorly with Americans of color. According to the poll, while 4 in 10 white Americans disapprove of the president’s response to Puerto Rico, 6 in 10 Latinx Americans and 8 in 10 Black Americans disapprove.
Other factors have also influenced that growing dissatisfaction. Trump’s lag in suspending the Jones Act, an archaic shipping policy choking Puerto Rico’s economy, generated outrage, as did initial reports that the island’s request for a waiver allowing food stamps to be used at fast food restaurants had been denied. Officials announced late Tuesday evening that the waiver was later approved, but many questioned why the approval came so late, something that did not occur for Texans and Floridians.
Perhaps Trump’s biggest stumble of all came on Tuesday, when the president toured Puerto Rico for the first time since the hurricane hit. Rather than focusing on the needs of the island’s residents, Trump instead thanked Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló for his praise of the administration’s response, while highlighting the cost of relief efforts.
“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack — because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico,” Trump said during a briefing. (He later went on an extended tangent about F-35 airplanes, noting that “hundreds of millions of dollars worth” of new planes were being purchased for the Air Force.)
Trump then compared the damage from Hurricane Maria to Hurricane Katrina, which tore through New Orleans in 2005. Calling Katrina “a real catastrophe,” the president pointed to Puerto Rico’s supposedly low death count of 16 people, a number that more than doubled later in the day and is predicted to grow.
The visit took an increasingly strange turn as the day progressed. Photos and video footage showed Trump throwing paper towels into a crowd gathered at a relief center. At one point while touring the island, the president handed out flashlights, telling hurricane victims, “Flashlights! You don’t need ’em anymore!” At present, only 7 percent of the island has power — the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has said that number is only likely to reach 25 percent by next month.
Following the visit, Trump took heat from officials like Cruz, who pointed out that the president had not met with her or any of the island’s other mayors.
“He was insulting to the people of Puerto Rico,” Cruz told MSNBC Tuesday night. “This was a PR, 17-minute meeting. There was no exchange with anybody, with none of the mayors. And in fact, this terrible and abominable view of him throwing paper towels and throwing provisions at people, it really — it does not embody the spirit of the American nation, you know?”
“He kind of minimized our suffering here by saying that Katrina was a real disaster, sort of implying that this was not a real disaster because not many people have died here,” she added, pointing to the island’s ongoing medical crisis. “Well you know what? They’re dying. They don’t have the medical resources.”
Wednesday’s poll was notably based on data collected between September 28 and October 2, failing to account for Trump’s day in Puerto Rico.