For the first time since Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico with flash floods and 160 mph+ winds two weeks ago, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania traveled to San Juan on Tuesday to survey the damage and hold meetings about the relief effort with military and local officials.
The appearance was meant to be tightly scripted, the Washington Post reported. But as is his custom, the president at the last minute decided to deliver some off the cuff remarks that were seemingly intended to stoke controversy.
As the Hill reports, the president appeared in good spirits during the meeting as he circled the room praising officials in his administration and Puerto Rican officials. When he arrived at OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, Trump ribbed his budget director by saying “Mick is in charge of a thing called the budget.”
Then, in what was probably intended as a humorous jab at Mulvaney’s expense but will probably provoke outrage from the president’s detractors, who’ve already criticized his remarks about Puerto Rico’s finances, Trump joked that Hurricane Maria had thrown the federal budget “a little out of whack.”
“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack because we spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that's fine,” Trump said. “We saved a lot of lives.”
Later in the meeting, which took place in an aircraft hanger, the president compared the Hurricane Maria favorably with Hurricane Katrina, saying that that first responders should be “very proud” of the low death count.
“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, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this,” Trump said, before turning to a local official to ask how many people had died in storm. “What is your death count as of this moment? 17? 16 people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands.”
“You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together,” he said.
The Washington Post reports that according to the administration’s original plan, the president was supposed to deliver prepared remarks about the relief efforts while meeting with Governor Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico and Governor Kenneth Mapp, along with military officials helping to oversee the recovery effort. The president isn't expected to travel beyond the island’s capital, where the relief effort is further along than in more remote villages.
As he was doling out praise, the president singled out Rosselló and thanked him for his supportive remarks about the federal disaster-recovery effort. Trump also allowed Puerto Rico’s Republican resident commissioner, Jenniffer González-Colón, to speak.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz – who has become a prominent critic of the disaster relief effort - also joined Trump for his first briefing on the island. On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Cruz had been invited to participate in Trump’s visit, but the mayor’s name did not appear on the president’s public schedule and it was not clear until Tuesday morning that the two would meet.
As one would expect, Trump took a few moments to hit back at his political rivals and critics by praising the administration’s disaster response.
“I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done, and people are looking at that,” he said. “And in Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus. And I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it’s actually a much tougher situation. But now the roads are cleared, communications is starting to come back. We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks.”
After meeting with victims of one tragedy, the president is expected to travel to Las Vegas on Wednesday, where he will meet with victims, first responders and local officials following the deadliest mass shooting in US history. Trump said during an earlier interview that his administration “would be talking about gun laws” in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.
According to the Associated Press, after leaving the aircraft hanger, the president’s motorcade snaked through streets lined with downed tree limbs, mangled signs and drooping power lines as groups of people gathered to watch the motorcade pass.