President Trump provoked outrage on Saturday after he attacked San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on Twitter Saturday morning, accusing her of partisan bias and implying that Puerto Rico was not doing enough for itself in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island ten days ago.
On Friday, Cruz had lambasted a comment by Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke that the response to the disaster was a “good news story.”
“Dammit, this is not a good-news story,” Cruz said in an appearance on CNN. “This is a ‘people are dying’ story. It’s a life-or-death story.”
In an MSBNC interview on Saturday, Cruz responded to Trump’s attack, saying, “I was asking for help. I wasn’t saying anything nasty about the president.”
“The most powerful man in the world is concerned with a 5-foot-tall, 120-pound little mayor of the city of San Juan,” Cruz remarked to the Washington Post after originally seeing Trump’s tweets. “I don’t have time for politics,” she added. “There is a mission, and that is to save lives.”
In Puerto Rico, where water and food are scarce, hospitals are in crisis, and supplies are not getting to the American citizens who need them, the grim reality on the ground has clashed with the mostly positive White House accounts of the federal response.
But President Trump has been weirdly sunny in his outlook, boasting to reporters on Friday that “it’s been incredible, the results we’ve had with respect to loss of life.” He has also made repeated reference to Puerto Rico’s debt, even in the midst of the humanitarian catastrophe. At least 16 people are dead, though the number is expected to rise.
It took days for Trump to say anything about Puerto Rico after the storm hit, and the Post reported on Friday that his administration dithered and struggled in its initial response. According to that report, the disaster succeeded in capturing the White House’s attention only after Trump became “frustrated by the coverage he was seeing on TV,” and when officials finally surveyed the damage themselves five days after Maria made landfall.
In response to the negative coverage on Saturday, Trump accused the news media of purposefully downplaying the work of first responders in Puerto Rico on Saturday as well.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed Trump’s complaints, tweeting that the Post story about the government’s halting response was false.
But even Jeff Buchanan, the army lieutenant general who has been put in charge of the response, has acknowledged a shortage of troops and equipment in Puerto Rico. And Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, who coordinated Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, has slammed Trump administration efforts and said that President Trump “doesn’t give a damn about people of color.”
Later on Saturday, the president attempted to adopt a more conciliatory tone toward Puerto Rico’s people while calling out elected officials he said has praised him personally, including Governor Ricardo Rosselló, Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón, and Governor Kenneth Mapp of the storm-ravaged U.S. Virgin Islands.
Of course, the vast majority of people do not have power in Puerto Rico, so they can’t pay much attention to news, fake or otherwise.
Trump is at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, this weekend. The choice of venue is yet another reminder of the difference between his reaction to the destruction in Puerto Rico and his much more energized response to Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas, and Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida, earlier this month.
The president plans to visit Puerto Rico and possibly the U.S. Virgin Islands, on Tuesday. An anonymous White House official offered a flippant response when asked if the president would meet with San Juan’s mayor.
Trump’s tweets sparked a furor on social media among Democratic lawmakers and commentators, many of whom saw in the president’s victim-blaming not-so-subtle undercurrents of racism and sexism. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton who is of Puerto Rican descent, said the president would be “going straight to hell.”
Meanwhile, some Republicans worried about the political fallout from Puerto Ricans who make their way to Florida and may end up punishing the GOP at the ballot box.
This post has been updated throughout.