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Analysis: In Puerto Rico, Trump Congratulates Himself

GOP mum on messaging; Schumer says enough

President Donald Trump speaks to the media before departing for Puerto Rico. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks to the media before departing for Puerto Rico. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump arrived Tuesday in Puerto Rico and offered the hurricane-ravaged U.S. citizens not a truckload of drinkable water or fuel, but Trump himself and his team.

Trump’s day was one of countermessaging about his administration’s widely panned Puerto Rico relief efforts. He used a briefing minutes after he landed there to congratulate his team and solicit praise from Puerto Rican officials — lightly coaching them on what they should say.

Congressional Republicans largely ignored Trump’s salesman-like message, focusing instead on relief efforts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. military.

As many Puerto Ricans were still without drinking water, medication, food, electricity and fuel, Trump delivered tough love. “You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” he told local officials about the federal disaster relief effort there, later noting it was both “dangerous” and “expensive.”

The president’s attacks on some Puerto Rican officials have angered many congressional Democrats. “Mr. President, enough,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday of Trump’s critical tone.

Playing defense

For critics who contend the administration has overseen an ineffective response, Trump defended his own performance and that of his government.

He even used the current death toll in Puerto Rico (16 at the time of his visit, since upgraded to 34 by the island’s governor) to describe his administration’s efforts as a major success. He said Hurricane Maria, with its Category 5-level winds, was not a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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“Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina … 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.

“Sixteen people … versus in the thousands,” he said to local officials at Muniz Air National Guard Base.

When one local official praised local-federal communications, Trump described his government’s efforts as “a miracle.”

The president termed his visit a “great trip” and praised members of his administration, whom he referred to as “my people.”

FEMA Administrator Brock Long “has been unbelievable,” Trump said.

Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, who is overseeing relief efforts, was “a general for a reason,” the president said.

Thomas Bossert, his top homeland security adviser, has done a “great job,” Trump said. 

Before leaving Washington, Trump gave himself and his team “an A-plus” for relief efforts in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. Hours later, Trump said storm victims were praising him: “Great looking family and they said, ‘Thank you, Mr. President.’”

After some hurricane victims at one of his final stops shined flashlights, Trump said, “You don’t need them anymore” — though much of the island remains in the dark.

Republican reaction

On Capitol Hill, Republicans opted against criticizing the president, focusing instead on relief efforts in general.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows left Trump out of his response to a reporter’s question: “I try to discount a lot of the political rhetoric because I know the people at FEMA.”

Rep. Roger Williams was one Texas Republican who criticized Trump and Democratic leaders for packaging Hurricane Harvey relief with debt ceiling and government-funding legislation. He lauded the president Tuesday for putting Buchanan in charge, and for deploying military personnel.

“I don’t know what else you can do,” Williams said.

Back on the island, Trump at one point reverted to the role of consoler in chief, a familiar tone struck by presidents amid crises. “We’re going to help you out,” he told one family. But even Trump suggested a force other than his government played a major role in keeping the death toll — for now — under 20.

“You know who helped them?” he said about one family rescued from their devastated home. “God helped them.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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