That statement is problematic in several ways. The idea that Maria was not a “real catastrophe” defies all evidence, and any discussion of the death toll is premature. While the official number remains at 16, where it has been for several days without update, officials have acknowledged it will end up much higher. The Center for Investigative Journalism reported Monday that “dozens” of people are dead, with bodies piling up in morgues, even as the official count has not kept pace. Trump’s decision to use Hurricane Katrina as a benchmark also makes little sense and belittles the suffering in Puerto Rico. Katrina is both the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history since 1928 and a prime example of a mismanaged disaster. Trump also overstated the toll of Katrina, which was less than 2,000.
Trump also misstated Maria’s strength at landfall. “Few people have ever even heard of a Category 5 hitting land, but it hit land, and boy did it hit land,” he said, but the storm was a Category-4 storm when it struck. Trump also said the Coast Guard had saved 16,000 lives in Texas. It’s unclear where he got that number; the Coast Guard has claimed 11,000 rescues.
Later, after his briefing, Trump visited a church where he tossed toilet paper and paper towels into the crowd, shooting them like basketballs to a crowd.
Throughout the aftermath of the storm, Trump has often appeared more interested in the political ramifications of the storm than on the human effects, focusing on approval of himself and the federal government (though he doesn’t really draw a distinction between the two). This was also true at Muñiz. In praising Governor Ricardo Rosselló, for example, Trump reached for the lens of partisan affiliation.
“He’s not even from my party and he started right at the beginning appreciating what we did,” Trump said. “Right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics. He was saying it like it was, and he gave us the highest rates.”
This was an implicit jab at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been critical of relief efforts, and whom Trump claimed over the weekend was doing so because Democrats had put her up to it. As I noted, his broadside against Cruz serves as a warning to politicians like Rosselló not to follow her lead, lest Trump punish them too. (Speaking in Washington Tuesday, before taking off, Trump said of Cruz, “Well, I think she’s come back a long way. I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done, and people are looking at that.” It’s unclear what he is referring to. She attended Tuesday’s briefing.)
Trump also greeted Jenniffer González-Colón, a Republican who is Puerto Rico’s delegate to the U.S. House, and asked her to praise federal efforts.
“I watched the other day and she was saying such nice things about a lot of the people who are working so hard,” he said. “Jenniffer, do you think you could say a little bit what you said about us? It’s not about me, it’s about these incredible people from the military, from FEMA, the first responders.”