During a news conference on Tuesday in Puerto Rico, President Trump praised Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló — not for the work he’s done responding to a storm that has left half half of the island’s 3.4 million people without drinking water, but for not criticizing Trump personally.
After falsely claiming Hurricane Maria was a category 5 storm when it hit Puerto Rico — it was actually a category 4 — Trump addressed Rosselló, who was sitting directly to his right.
“Your governor has been — who I didn’t know, I heard very good things about him — he’s not even from my party, and he started right at the beginning appreciating what we did, and he was tremendously supportive and he knew the level of problem that you had at the beginning before [the storm], and the level what happened with respect to the tremendous storm that hit your beautiful island,” Tump said.
Contrasting Rosselló’s measured comments about the federal response with those of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been outspoken in her pleas for more assistance from the federal government, Trump praised Rosselló.
“Right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics, he didn’t play at all, he was saying it like it was and he was giving us the highest grades and I want to on behalf of our country, I want to thank you,” Trump said.
Trump’s comments come while more than 90 percent of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid remains down. Though Trump touted the fact that there have so far been only 16 confirmed deaths as a result of Hurricane Maria, the actual number is much higher. Rosselló told reporters on Monday that some areas are still cut off from communication and 12 of the 78 municipalities haven’t been able to obtain necessary supplies.
Despite the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico, Trump later joked that the island’s troubles have “thrown our budget a little out of whack,” and downplayed the devastation wrought by Maria in comparison with a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina.
The White House press pool reported that while Trump said that, Cruz “did not applaud, keeping her hands clasped in front of her.” Trump has repeatedly expressed concern about how much helping the Puerto Rican people will cost, and about the island’s indebtedness.
Before departing for his brief trip to a Puerto Rican airplane hanger, Trump repeated the racially loaded attack he first made on Cruz over the weekend, telling reporters that Puerto Ricans must do more to help themselves and not rely so much on the government.
“We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks,” Trump said. “On a local level, they have to give us more help.”
In an unusual move, on Saturday evening, the White House released readouts of calls several Trump had with several current and former Puerto Rican officials, not including Cruz, all of whom purportedly praised the federal government’s response to the storm.
Following the news conference, Trump met with Maria victims. He ended a conversation with one family by telling them, “have a good time.”
Trump’s jarring language in that interaction is par for the course for him. In the immediate aftermath of Maria ravaging Puerto Rico, Trump said that “the loss of life, it’s always tragic. But it’s been incredible.” He added that “people can’t believe how successful [the administration’s response] has been, relatively speaking.” Meanwhile, Cruz was sounding the alarm, pleading for more federal help.
During a news conference held after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area with unprecedented rainfall in August, Trump introduced Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director William Brock Long as “a man who really has become very famous on television in the last couple of days” and then thanked Gov. Greg Abbott (R), saying, “We won’t say congratulations. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to congratulate. We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.” He didn’t once mention anyone killed or displaced by the storm.