President Donald Trump on Thursday gave the federal government’s hurricane response in Puerto Rico “a 10” out of 10.
Answering reporters’ questions in the Oval Office for more than 30 minutes alongside the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, Trump repeated the phrase often, and even attempted to draw similar praise from the governor.
“Did the United States, did our government, when we came in, did we do a great job? Military? First responders? FEMA? Did we do a great job?” Trump asked the governor.
“You responded immediately, sir,” Rosselló said, failing to match Trump’s self-congratulatory tone. The governor listed a series of obstacles that he said disaster relief personnel on the island had had to overcome.
“The response is there,” he said. “Do we need to do a lot more? Of course we do. And I think everybody over here recognizes there’s a lot of work to be done in Puerto Rico. But with your leadership, sir, and with everybody over here, we’re committed to achieving that in the long run.”
Trump unwound his arms, tightly-crossed through much of the meeting, to point to his FEMA administrator. “Brock?”
Brock Long listed FEMA’s efforts “from the Virgin Islands to California,” and affirmed that, yes, Mr. President, “it’s been a tremendous effort.”
“This is actually bigger than anything we’ve seen,” Trump said, somewhat defiantly. “And yet I think our response was better than anyone has ever seen.”
Officially, 48 people have died on the island as a result of the storm, but the real count is likely much higher. According to the Puerto Rican government, the vast majority of the island is still without power, and clean drinking water is still a rarity in some areas.
In the wide-ranging question-and-answer session, the pair discussed everything from reports of local corruption to, briefly, Puerto Rican statehood. “You’ll get me into trouble with that question,” Trump told an inquiring reporter. At one point, the President congratulated members of the military who had become deputized truck drivers, filling in for truckers on the island who had lost everything.
“They’re not supposed to be driving trucks,” he said. “It’s not even their aptitude.”
Much of the press availability, however, consisted of a terse back-and-forth between a governor overseeing a devastated island and a President who complained just days after Hurricane Maria made its chaotic landfall that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them.”
Rosselló thanked Trump for his support for investments that he projected would make the island a “model of sustainable energy and growth towards the future.”
Trump countered: “You are talking about some substantial numbers, and I guess you knew that.”
“I know you were talking about rebuilding your electric plant long before the hurricane, you’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,” Trump continued. “So maybe this is a reason that we can do it and we’ll help you and we’ll all do it together.”
Perhaps predictably, the President returned to his obsession with Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. In 2016, Congress signed into law the so-called PROMESA legislation, which turned control of the island’s debt over to a federally-appointed financial oversight board.
Once, Trump implied that the island’s debt would be forgiven as part of the hurricane relief effort. His budget director quickly clarified that the President meant no such thing. On Thursday, Trump sounded like he wanted to issue even more debt to the island — and to prioritize the government’s position as a debt collector.
“We’re going to be coming before — meaning far before — any existing debt that’s on the island because as you know, the island has massive debt,” he said cryptically, adding: “Any debt that’s put in, we’ll be coming before that debt. We want to make sure that we put in debt, and that debt is absolutely protected.”