Trump's Puerto Rico Visit Is a Political Disaster

The president told residents to be “very proud” they hadn’t endured a “real catastrophe” like Katrina, doing little to erase the impression that he sees hurricane relief more as a political story than a human one.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Updated on October 3 at 2:36 p.m.

Making his first appearance in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico since Maria’s landfall, President Trump offered a hearty round of congratulations to federal relief efforts and thanked the island’s governor. But the president also suggested Maria was not a “real catastrophe,” made an odd and misleading comparison to the death toll from Hurricane Katrina, and joked about how the hurricane would affect the federal budget.

It was a typically strange, disjointed appearance by the president, and it came just days after Trump spent much of the weekend picking fights with the mayor of San Juan and insisting that, against all evidence, the recovery effort had largely responded to Puerto Rico’s needs. At Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Trump was eager to praise the work of federal agencies, including FEMA, the Air Force, the Navy, and the Coast Guard, amid a chorus of criticism that Washington’s response has been too slow and too small. But that praise led him in strange directions.

“Every death is a horror, 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 and what is your death count? Sixteen people, versus in the thousands,” Trump said. “You can be very proud. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.”

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.”

Yet as with his premature celebration of the death toll, Trump’s comments about Puerto Rico and Maria still fell far short of empathy, and were in some cases strangely tone-deaf. Before leaving for Puerto Rico, Trump complained that rather than the federal government not doing enough, it was Puerto Rican authorities who weren’t doing enough to hasten the recovery.

“On a local level, they have to give us more help,” he said in Washington. “But I will tell you, the first responders, the military, FEMA, they have done an incredible job in Puerto Rico.”

During his briefing, he made an apparent attempt at a joke about the cost of recovery. “I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” he said. “That’s fine. We saved a lot of lives.” Yet the remark comes in the context of Trump repeatedly mentioning Puerto Rico’s debts as both a reason for the slow recovery and a reason to think hard about reconstruction there. Nor did he make similar remarks after hurricanes in Texas and Florida.

Meanwhile, after thanking an Air Force general present at the briefing, Trump went on a strange digression about the F-35 fighter jet, a troubled boondoggle whose cost Trump negotiated down with the manufacturer. The discussion of the plane was roughly as lengthy as the president’s discussion of the victims of the storm, and it had nothing to do with the hurricane. If the Puerto Rico visit sought to reverse the impression that Trump has not taken Maria seriously and does not feel empathy for its victims, Tuesday’s briefing did not help the cause.