President Trump tossed rolls of paper towels like jump shots to a supportive crowd in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, praised the response efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and awkwardly marveled at the low death count compared to “a real catastrophe like Katrina.”
Trump sought to ease criticism, especially from the mayor of San Juan, that the federal government has been sluggish and ineffective in providing relief to an island where many residents are still without food, power and water.
“The job that’s been done here is really nothing short of a miracle,” Trump said.
At a briefing with military and local leaders, Trump appeared to take a swipe at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who had blasted his administration’s response, only to then be slammed by the president on Twitter for her “poor leadership ability.”
“Governor, I just want to tell you that, right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics,” Trump said of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello. “He didn’t play it at all. He was saying it like it was, and he was giving us the highest grades.”
Trump did not mention the mayor at all during his comments, though the two briefly exchanged pleasantries.
The president repeatedly praised members of his own administration as well as officials in Puerto Rico, though many on the island are still recovering and the death toll could continue to rise.
Trump has been particularly sensitive to comparisons to President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and sought to head off that criticism yesterday.
“Every death is a horror,” Trump said. “But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering — nobody has ever seen anything like this.”
So far, 34 people have died in Maria’s aftermath, compared to the 1,800 or so that perished after Hurricane Katrina, particularly after levees broke and flooded New Orleans.
Trump also raised eyebrows as he was introducing budget director Mick Mulvaney with a dark-humored jab at the toll the U.S. territory is taking on the federal purse strings.
“Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico,” Trump said, “but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”
Trump traveled to Calvary Chapel, packed with supporters who cheered him on as he entered, clutching signs that read “Let’s Make Puerto Rico Great Again” and “God Bless You, Mr. President.”
Trump handed out packages of rice, then tossed rolls of paper towels into the crowd like a hoops star arching three-pointers, as some audience members captured the spectacle on their cellphones.
“There’s a lot of love in this room — a lot of love,” the president said.
No major protests broke out during his visit, although one woman standing along the route of Trump’s motorcade held a sign that said: “You are a bad hombre.”
Trump also toured the island from Marine One, then landed on the USS Kearsarge where he met with Navy and Marine Corps officials as well as the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which was also battered by hurricanes.
Herald wire services contributed to this story.
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