The natural disaster in Puerto Rico has escalated into a firestorm for President Donald Trump, whose Saturday Twitter attack on the mayor of San Juan drew harsh condemnations, new charges of insensitivity, and warnings about political fallout.
In a series of Saturday morning tweets, Trump blasted the “poor leadership ability” of Puerto Rican officials, who he said “want everything to be done for them.” Trump also said the island’s leaders “are not able to get their workers to help,” and accused the Democratic mayor of San Juan—who has publicly criticized his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria—of scoring partisan political points.
Even Republicans were uncomfortable seeing television images of suffering Puerto Ricans juxtaposed with Trump’s fighting words, tweeted from his luxury golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey.
“He is definitely not helping,” said Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes, a Puerto Rico native who lives in Central Florida, which has seen a huge influx of Puerto Rican families in recent years. Cortes added that the controversy “gives [Democrats] a platform to register new voters.”
Other Republicans also worry that Trump’s comments could be a godsend to Democrats in Florida—a swing state whose Puerto Rican population of more than 1 million is expected to swell as people flee the storm’s aftermath.
Ten days after Maria ravaged the island, most of Puerto Rico is still without power and many of its 3.4 million residents, most of them U.S. citizens, lack basic supplies like food and water. Critics say the Trump administration has been slow to help, with some invoking the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans a decade ago.
The perception that George W. Bush oversaw an incompetent and insensitive response to Katrina dealt a crippling blow to his presidency from which he never recovered, helping to drive his approval ratings to the low 20s. Trump officials scoff at the comparison with Katrina, saying their response to Maria has been appropriate.
In Washington, Democrats were swift to condemn Trump’s tweets Saturday.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, released a statement calling Trump’s tweets “abhorrent, baseless, and… beneath the dignity of the office of the Presidency.”
“Lives are on the line and people are dying,” he added.
Trump’s early morning broadsides, which began at 7:19 a.m., came after San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz slammed the administration’s response repeatedly on Friday amid growing media coverage of the devastation on her island.
“We are dying here,” Cruz said in an emotional plea. “If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy.” Puerto Rican officials say Maria killed at least 16 people there—a number experts believe will grow significantly.
From Bedminster, Trump defended his response while dismissing Cruz as a partisan.
“The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help.”
Trump added that the Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”
But Republicans are anxious about the political effect the Puerto Rico crisis might have on Trump’s national standing as well as their fortunes in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott is mulling a bid against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson next year. The past four top-of-the-ticket races in Florida were decided by 1.2 percentage points or less. Puerto Rican voters already tend to favor Democrats.
“It is a political nightmare for both Trump and Scott,” a consultant associated with the Republican National Committee said in a text message. He said the disaster and Trump’s “asinine response to criticism” have given Democrats “a way to 1) energize Puerto Rican voters in Florida and 2) motivate Puerto Rican residents who will be Florida residents after this disaster.”
While echoing those concerns, Cortes also noted that Puerto Rico deserves its share of the blame, thanks to the commonwealth’s endemic corruption and mismanagement. “It took a storm of this magnitude to show how underprepared they were,” Cortes said.
Meanwhile, the White House is fighting against the narrative that it has been slow to act. Trump’s Saturday schedule lists five phone calls to discuss the storm response, including one with Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long.
Trump also reiterated his plan to visit the island on Tuesday, saying he would “hopefully” stop off in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Trump’s White House social media director, Dan Scavino, joined the fray on Twitter, calling Cruz a “hater” and “an opportunistic politician.” But Cruz denied that her criticism of Trump was fueled by personal animus.
“Actually, I was asking for help,” she told MSNBC on Saturday morning. “I wasn’t saying anything nasty about the president.” Cruz noted that even Trump’s point man for the disaster recovery effort, Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, said on Friday that the number of U.S. troops assisting is “not enough.” (Buchanan said more manpower and equipment like helicopters were headed to the island.)
Trump’s tweets also targeted media outlets that have dedicated increasing amounts of air time to the suffering and chaos on the pummeled island.
“Fake News CNN and NBC are going out of their way to disparage our great First Responders as a way to ‘get Trump.’ Not fair to FR or effort!” he wrote.
Under mounting pressure, in recent days Trump officials have defended their relief effort as a success. On Thursday, acting Homeland Security Secty. Elaine Duke called the response “a good news story.”
The comment only inflamed frustrations on an island where a sense of helplessness prevails, however.
“Damn it, this is not a good news story,” Cruz told CNN on Friday. “This is a people are dying story. This is a life or death story. This is a there’s a truck-load of stuff that cannot be taken to people story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water.”
Cruz, a liberal Trump critic, initially avoided tussling with the president for fear that it would become a distraction to relief efforts and “not productive.”
But as the week unfolded, Puerto Rico officials felt their pleas for faster action and less red tape went unheeded. Then, on Thursday, Trump touted the recovery effort on Twitter, writing, “Governor said ‘great job!’” That was an apparent reference to Cruz, who finally let loose with harsh criticism.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) also pointed to problems on the island in a Friday tweet, writing that criticism of the Trump administration response is “missing [the] main problem.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency “has sent lots of aid problem is distribution once it gets to #PuertoRico,” Rubio wrote.
Rubio, though, warned the Trump administration privately and publicly that Puerto Rico could become a “Katrina-like” situation.
Behind the sharp debate over disaster response are internal political tensions on the island. Cruz is eyeing the job of Puerto Rico’s Republican governor, Ricardo Rossello, who has taken pains to avoid publicly criticizing Trump. She is developing strong ties to Florida Democrats, and met Wednesday with Miami Beach mayor himself Philip Levine, a likely candidate for Florida governor, when he delivered 7,000 pounds of relief supplies to the island.
About 24 hours later, Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, met with Rossello in Puerto Rico on Thursday, then debriefed Trump on the disaster response over lunch the following day.
“This is not a time for politics,” Scott said on the White House lawn, saying that Rossello is “going through an unbelievable crisis.”