President Donald Trump on Tuesday continued to stress that assisting Puerto Rico following a devastating hurricane had “thrown our budget a little out of whack.” He also thanked the island’s governor and congressional representative for not playing politics with the hurricane recovery.
Trump opened his remarks on hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico by thanking the elected and appointed officials seated around him, with one notable exception: the mayor of San Juan, who Trump has relentlessly attacked after she criticized the federal government’s response to the massively destructive storm.
On Tuesday, in a congratulatory mood and frequently soliciting applause from his audience on behalf of federal rescue workers, Trump’s approach seemed bizarrely out-of-place, even detached.
He compared Hurricane Maria to Hurricane Katrina, which he called “a real catastrophe,” and said that while “every death is a horror,” the situation on the island could have been worse. Puerto Rico is still reeling from the storm, as nearly half of residents were without access to clean water and sewage treatment as of Monday, according to Bloomberg, and power is still out nearly island-wide for private customers.
Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz was in attendance Tuesday and shook Trump’s hand before the meeting. After that, he avoided mentioning her while reporters were present.
Instead, he lavished praise on Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “Right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics. He didn’t play it at all. He was saying it like it was and he was giving us the highest grades,” he said. Trump also praised Puerto Rico’s non-voting congressional representative, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón, who he said “was saying such nice things about all of the people that have worked so hard.”
He went around the room, acknowledging military leaders and even his own chief of staff before that man, John Kelly, seemed to urge Trump to send members of the media out of the meeting, as had been planned.
Earlier, Trump said before arriving on the island Tuesday that Puerto Ricans, namely the island’s truck drivers, “have to give us more help.”
At the meeting Tuesday, he called out his budget director, Mick Mulvaney and said the island’s recovery would cost the federal government.
“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,” he then said. “We saved a lot of lives. If you look at the — 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 overbearing, nobody has seen anything like this.”
Omaya Sosa Pascual of the Center for Investigative Journalism reported Tuesday that the death toll from Maria is potentially dozens or even hundreds more than the official number.
“I think it just goes to prove the lack of sensibility,” Mayor Cruz told CNN later, responding to Trump’s comments about the budget. “You’re coming to a place where people are expecting you to be comforting.” She added: “It doesn’t make you feel good.”
“I really felt that the productive part of everything was the second part,” she said, referring to a meeting with top White House advisers but not Trump himself.
Meeting with hurricane survivors after the meeting, Trump repeated his wish to shelter-bound Texans following Hurricane Harvey: “Have a good time.”
This post has been updated.