WASHINGTON – For days, President Trump has lashed out at anyone who dares to criticize his administration's response to the hurricane that crippled Puerto Rico.
When he arrives on the storm-battered island on Tuesday, he will finally see the damage for himself.
Though the deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas prompted speculation that Trump might cancel the trip, the president confirmed he still plans plans to visit and defended his administration's efforts to supply Puerto Rico with sufficient power, food, and potable water.
"It's been amazing, what's been done in a short period of time on Puerto Rico," Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday.
After Trump's long and protracted feud with the mayor of San Juan, the visit may prove a critical test of Trump's leadership.
Trump earned generally high marks for his response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but his public response to Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of the storm has been strikingly different.
Trump, who hunkered down at Camp David to receive briefings about the Texas and Florida storms, frequently tweeted affirmations of support for their victims. Yet in the days after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, there was relative silence from Trump and his Twitter account.
Last Monday, in his first tweet about Puerto Rico since the storm hit, Trump appeared to blame Puerto Rico's electrical system and the territory's ongoing bankruptcy for impeding relief efforts. Not only did this rankle local officials, it spawned enough domestic criticism that Trump was forced to clarify last Tuesday that he was not too "preoccupied" with Twitter attacks on football players who sit or kneel during the national anthem to monitor the storm.
Trump escalated the tensions with some local officials this weekend. In a Saturday morning tweetstorm, he claimed San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz – who had objected to the acting Department of Homeland Security chief calling Puerto Rico relief a "good news story" while people were dying on the ground – instructed by Democrats to "be nasty to Trump."
"Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help," he said Saturday. "They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job."
Trump’s unscripted public remarks have led critics to accuse him of exacerbating racial tensions.
After the violent white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump blamed “both sides.” During his Twitter lectures on largely black NFL players who refuse to stand during the National Anthem, Trump suggested that largely white team owners were “afraid” of the players. And his suggestions last week that Puerto Ricans were waiting for help rather than taking steps to repair the damage themselves left the impression he was criticizing Latino Americans.
"Given the president's history on race, given the fact that he, a few months ago, told us that there were good people on both sides when neo-Nazis were marching in Charlottesville, yes, I think we have a right to be suspect that he is treating the people of Puerto Rico in a different way than he has treated the people of Texas or Florida," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Despite the controversy, Trump re-doubled his counter-attack on Sunday, slamming "fake news" and "politically motivated ingrates" for criticizing his response. Since first attacking the mayor early Saturday morning, Trump has referred to Puerto Rico in at least 22 tweets.
Trump, who spent the weekend at his golf club in New Jersey, must now prove he's attentive to the damage on the ground, and persuade people he is doing all he can to help.
When he arrives on the island on Tuesday, he's facing a dire picture. Only 45% of Puerto Rico customers had access to drinking water, according to the White House.
“When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story," Cruz told CNN on Friday. "When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story ... Damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a 'people are dying' story.” During television appearances, the mayor wore a t-shirt: "Help Us We Are Dying."
Cruz also said she'd be willing to meet with the president if asked, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the mayor has been invited to participate in events with Trump. "Our focus is to bring the mayor into the coordination efforts," Sanders said.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump are expected to visit with first responders, the U.S. military, and members of Federal Emergency Management Agency. He also plans to meet with Kenneth Mapp, the governor of the Virgin Islands, which was also ravaged by Hurricane Maria. "Because of the difficulty in getting into the Virgin Islands, he's probably going to meet us in Puerto Rico," Trump said Monday.
"Most importantly," he said, "we're going to be seeing the people of Puerto Rico."
Sanders said Trump will tell island residents that "we are with them 100%."
FEMA Director Brock Long, speaking on Fox News Sunday, described the recovery effort as "the most logistically challenging event the United States has ever seen."
Trump himself has cited the many logistical challenges of getting supply planes and boats into damaged ports, and then hacking the way inland through land strewn with down trees and power lines. "There's never been a piece of land that we've known that was so devastated," he said.
"The bridges are down; the telecommunications was nonexistent, and it's in very, very bad shape," Trump said Monday. "The electrical grid, as you know, was totally destroyed." He added there have been "tremendous amounts of food and water and lots of other things" delivered to people who need them.
On Sunday, Trump presented the President's Cup trophy to a victorious U.S. national golf team, and dediPresto cated it to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida.
As Trump did so, a spectator shouted: "You don't give a s--- about Puerto Rico!"
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