WASHINGTON - While President Trump toured Puerto Rico on Tuesday to praise his team's response to Hurricane Maria, critics heard other things -- including a joke about the expense of the effort and praise for the fact that only 16 people have died since the deadly storm two weeks ago.
"Sixteen dead – versus in the thousands," Trump said during a briefing with Puerto Rican officials adding that, while "every death is a horror," the devastation has not been a catastrophe on the same scale of Hurricane Katrina, which killed some 1,800 people in New Orleans in 2005.
Later on Tuesday following Trump's comments, the Governor of Puerto Rico announced the death count had risen to 34.
Citing the logistical and financial challenges of the federal disaster response on the island, Trump quipped: "Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack."
Trump's comments did not go over well with some U.S. lawmakers.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., hit Trump for having "the gall to complain about Puerto Rico," while he has proposed "tax cuts for billionaires" throughout the United States. He also noted that Trump didn't tell jokes about Texas and Florida after their hurricanes.
"Mr. President, enough," Schumer said. "Stop blaming Puerto Rico for the storm that devastated their shores, and roll up your sleeves and get the recovery on track. That’s your job as President."
Trump also got a somewhat frosty reception from some Puerto Rico residents, after more than a week of back-and-forth between the president and local critics of the U.S. relief effort.
On Sunday, Trump described critics of his government's response to the humanitarian disaster "politically motivated ingrates." Some residents took issue with Trump's tone. "People need water, gasoline and tarps, without the politics," resident Liza Minnelli Pacheco told USA TODAY.
As Trump motorcaded to various spots on the island, passing broken highway dividers and hundreds of downed trees, one local woman held up a sign at the president that read: "You are a bad hombre."
In addition to his briefing, Trump also toured a neighborhood where residents are rebuilding damaged homes. "We're going to help you out," he told members of one family.
At a church converted into a relief center, Trump handed out bags of "Arroz Rico" rice; he shot rolls of paper towels into the ground, basketball style; he picked up items from a supply table, showed to them to the crowd, and handed them to people with outstretched hands.
"There's a lot of love in this room," Trump said at one point.
As Air Force One headed for Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has clashed with Trump over the pace of relief efforts, announced she would attend a briefing with the president local leaders.
"I will use this opportunity to reiterate the primary message: this is about saving lives, not about politics," Cruz said in a statement. "This is also about giving the people of Puerto Rico the respect we deserve; and recognizing the moral imperative to do both."
During his briefing in San Juan, Trump singled out Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló "for not playing politics" with the response. The president repeatedly praised his "amazing" response team, and called on some of his hosts to praise the U.S. effort as well.
Some analysts found Trump less than empathetic.
"Bad idea for Trump to go to Puerto Rico," tweeted Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group think tank. "Too hard to fake empathy. Better to get the clean up right and let the professionals run the show."
Some Democrats roasted the Trump presentation, noting that much of the island still lacks food, potable water, and electrical power.
David Axelrod, long-time political adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted: "Entire press avail is about what a terrific job admin has done. If people of Puerto Rico had power and could watch TV, they might differ."
Trump has denounced any criticism as political, and defended the hurricane response throughout the day.
Earlier Tuesday, while leaving the White House, Trump said: "In Texas and in Florida we get an A-plus .... And I'll tell you what, I think we've done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it's actually a much tougher situation."
In addition to the briefing with local officials, the president and first lady Melania Trump also will "visit with individuals impacted" by the deadly storm, according to the White House schedule.
Trump also has meetings planned with Gov. Rosselló, as well as members of the U.S. military who are leading the relief efforts. Trump is also scheduled to speak with Gov, Kenneth Mapp of the Virgin Island, also damaged by Hurricane Maria.
In confirming his trip on Monday, Trump continued to defend the hurricane response. "It's been amazing, what's been done in a short period of time on Puerto Rico," he told reporters at the White House.
Some Puerto Rico residents may differ. According to the Puerto Rico governor's office, a little less than half of residents have access to potable water, while 95% of the island is still without electricity.
In her complaints about the U.S. response, San Juan Mayor Cruz objected to the acting Department of Homeland Security chief calling Puerto Rico relief a "good news story" while people were dying.
Trump this weekend accused Cruz of "poor leadership" over Twitter and said she was taking instructions from Democrats that she "be nasty Trump." In another missive, Trump said too many people in Puerto Rico "want everything to be done for them."
In an interview with MSNBC on Saturday, Cruz said she wasn't being nasty to the president, she was only "asking for help" for her constituents.
"This is a time when everyone shows their true colors," Cruz said. "I will continue to do what I have to do, say what I have to say, compliment the people that I have to compliment, and call out the people that I need to call out."
Speaking with reporters at the White House before his departure, Trump said Cruz has been more conciliatory in her more recent remarks, and "I think she’s come back a long way; I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done, and people are looking at that."
Trump’s unscripted public remarks have led critics to accuse him of exacerbating racial tensions.
After the violent white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump blamed “both sides.” During his Twitter lectures on largely black NFL players who refuse to stand during the National Anthem, Trump suggested that largely white team owners were “afraid” of the players. And his suggestions last week that Puerto Ricans were waiting for help rather than taking steps to repair the damage themselves left the impression he was criticizing Latino Americans.
"Given the president's history on race, given the fact that he, a few months ago, told us that there were good people on both sides when neo-Nazis were marching in Charlottesville, yes, I think we have a right to be suspect that he is treating the people of Puerto Rico in a different way than he has treated the people of Texas or Florida," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Trump travels to Puerto Rico a day ahead of another somber trip to Las Vegas, in the wake of the mass shooting that killed at least 59 people.
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