GUAYNABO, PUERTO RICO — The president of the United States couldn’t help himself, even as he visited an American territory still struggling to recover from the devastation and death from a hurricane.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump flew to the island to survey damage left by Hurricane Maria. Along the way, he looked to settle political scores, took a victory lap for the job his administration was doing, and—once again—chastised Puerto Rico for its neediness after being hit by a category five storm.
"I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack," Trump said, flanked by federal and local officials at a televised meeting.
"That's fine, because we’ve saved a lot of lives," Trump was sure to add, capping his attempt at charm and dark humor.
For a president facing increasing criticism over his response to Puerto Rico’s plight, the trip likely won’t quiet matters. But Trump managed to create a positive feedback loop for himself while on the island—one that, at least momentarily, kept him insulated from negative reviews.
The president surrounded himself with friendly praise during an extended photo op and was accompanied by officials who complimented him and his administration's relief efforts. To them, he returned the favor.
"I just want to tell you that right from the beginning this governor was not playing politics," Trump said at the event on Tuesday, addressing Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló. “He was giving us the highest grades,” Trump added.
The haters, as Trump likes to call them, weren’t treated as kindly. Trump exchanged a few words with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been critical of the administration’s response, and who Trump was jabbing at as he praised Rosselló. But she was kept at a distance and would later take Trump to task for showing insensitivity to the situation on the ground, including his complaint about the money that the recovery effort would cost.
“It doesn’t make you feel good,” she told CNN. “And again this is about two things. It is about respect for the Puerto Rican people and it is about saving lives.”
Tensions were high heading into the trip. Trump had not once but twice shamed the hurricane-stricken U.S. territory, via his personal Twitter account, prior to his departure. And there was some trepidation over how Puerto Ricans would receive him when he arrived.
The White House took few chances. Trump greeted military members upon landing and held an open discussion with favorably-disposed politicians at a roundtable at the airport hangar. He then took a motorcade to nearby Guaynabo municipality for photo ops and a walking tour. He and his crew ended up in Calgary Chapel Church, the largest English speaking church on the island, located about 90 minutes south of San Juan.
The church’s pastor, Jason Dennett, said that an event planner (he suspected Secret Service) had first approached him five days ago before others followed up a day later to approve the location. Dennett also said that roughly 150 refugees from Guaynabo arrived to see the president. “We love our president,” Dennett said, revealing that he and his community had made the signs to greet Trump upon his arrival, including ones that read: "Proud Americans," "Let's Make Puerto Rico Great Again" and "God bless You Mr. President."
But even with the all the pre-planning, Trump had his shaky moments. He applauded local authorities for keeping the casualty count “only” at 16 (an unofficial tally that is likely to rise). He was caught on mic telling a hurricane victim to “have a good time” and he jubilantly lobbed rolls of paper towels—like they were basketballs—into a huddle of storm victims during his appearance at the church.
"There's a lot of love in this room, a lot of love," Trump said, sounding like he did at a 2016 campaign stop.
By 4 pm, Air Force One had left the island. But Trump’s petty squabbles likely will continue.
After receiving his hurricane briefing, Trump sat down for an interview with Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera, a friendly face, and a similar critic of Mayor Cruz. Over the weekend, Rivera had debated the semantics of “dying” with the mayor, explaining that he had traveled the island and didn’t “see people dying.”
“I spoke to the doctors,” Rivera said, “they say they saw 53 patients and they had a person who was septic, but nobody dying.”
Trump’s interview with Rivera will air tonight on Fox News during Sean Hannity’s program.