President Donald Trump witnessed first hand the destruction in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico Tuesday, and met with the island’s leaders, including some who have been among the harshest critics of Washington’s response to the disaster.
“I’ve never seen people working so hard in my life,” Trump said as he spoke to a welcoming party of federal and local officials at Luis Muñoz Air National Guard base.
Trump used the occasion to heap praise on federal and military recovery efforts that have come in for harsh criticism for being too little and too late to save the lives of storm victims in isolated areas left without water and other necessities for more than a week.
Just after Trump wrapped up his visit, authorities raised the death toll on Puerto Rico from 16 to 34. The president had compared the relatively low number of fatalities with the more than 1800 people killed by Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005.
“Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”He made light of the fact that the unexpectedly high cost of hurricane assistance was adding billions of dollars to the federal budget deficit. “Now, I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack. Because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico and that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”
Trump shook hands with the Democratic Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a vocal critic of the federal response, but did not mention her as he complimented Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello, also a Democrat, and others for their leadership.
“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 and I want to on behalf of our country I want to thank you.”
The president was later overheard telling residents that Mayor Cruz was among those who had done a good job in organizing and leading post-hurricane recovery work.