US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump make their way to board Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland en route Puerto Rico on October 3, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN
President Donald Trump departed for hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico Tuesday, hoping to underscore government recovery efforts and repair damage done by his contentious early response to the crisis.
Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria thrashed through the US territory, much of the islands remains short of food and without access to power or drinking water.
Trump, who has feuded with the mayor of San Juan over the pace of the relief effort, claimed before leaving that even his critics were acknowledging “what a great job we have done.”
“Now the roads are cleared and communication is starting to come back. Their drivers have to start driving trucks. We have to do that, so at a local level they have to give us help,” he told reporters.
Trump wants to show that the federal government is on top of the daunting recovery effort, and that 3.4 million American citizens are not forgotten.
The administration’s critics said the early response was not fast enough or large enough, prompting the pugilistic president to punch back.
He berated San Juan’s mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz — who was frequently on TV asking for help — and suggested Puerto Ricans were “ingrates” who “want everything to be done for them.”
Trump went on to accuse the media of lying about the “great job” he was doing, in a series of excoriating weekend tweets.
“Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates… people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done,” he wrote.
The White House fired out a series of compliments about the relief effort from political allies to try and drive home the point.
It took the unusual step of citing a gushing call between Trump and former Puerto Rican governor Luis Fortuno, who now lives in Washington and works as a lobbyist.
Luckily for the White House, few Puerto Ricans had time or — quite literally the energy — to read or hear of the president’s barbed remarks.
But Trump’s visit will be carefully choreographed to avoid any embarrassing protests.
‘Very, very bad shape’
The US leader is expected to land at Muniz Air National Guard Base near the capital San Juan.
During roughly five hours on ground he and first lady Melania Trump will meet first responders, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as well as survivors.
He is also expected to meet the governor of the US Virgin Islands, which were similarly devastated by Maria, but are not quite ready for the massive footprint of a presidential visit.
Already this storm season, Trump has visited damaged areas of Florida, Louisiana and Texas (twice).
But his trip to Puerto Rico, normally a fairly routine show of presidential empathy, has taken on outsized political meaning.
“It’s been amazing what’s been done in a very short period of time on Puerto Rico,” Trump said defending the response.
“There’s never been a piece of land that we’ve known that was so devastated,” he claimed.
“The bridges are down, the telecommunications was nonexistent, and it’s in very, very bad shape. The electrical grid, as you know, was totally destroyed.”
Though Puerto Ricans are US citizens with US passports, they can only vote in presidential primaries.
If they live on the island, they cannot vote in US presidential elections. If they are living on the mainland, they can register to vote including for president, in whichever state they live.