Donald Trump plunged into fresh controversy as he said Puerto Rico’s devastation by Hurricane Maria had “thrown our budget a little of whack”, and claimed officials should be “proud” that so few people had died, unlike in catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina.
As Mr Trump arrived in the American territory almost two weeks after the hurricane — on a visit intended to show empathy with millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down — he marveled that the death toll had only reached 16. Hours later, and after Mr Trump had returned to Washington, the death toll was revised upward to 34 casualties on the island.
Only a tiny percentage of the 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico have electricity. Around half of residents do not have access to fresh drinking water, and only a third can make use of their mobile phones.
Yet, as he sat with the First Lady Melania Trump and spoke with state and federal officials, it appeared that the cost of the federal response was of chief concern to the President.
Introducing White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, who was accompanying him on the trip, Mr Trump said: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack, because we have spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine.”
He also said the island should be “very proud” only 16 people had lost their lives, compared to the “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” who were killed by Hurricane Katrina that struck Louisiana in 2005.
“We’ve saved a lot of lives. Every death is a horror. If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who died, and you look here at a storm that was totally overpowering, and you look at your death count – 16 certified – then you can be very proud.”
He added: “You can be very proud of how your people and our people worked together.” Puerto Rico is a US territory.
Ahead of his visit, Mr Trump had been criticised by many for what was perceived as the slow federal response to the disaster, especially when compared to how the government helped Florida and Texas after they were respectively struck by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.
Over the weekend, the three-star general leading the US military’s emergency response in Puerto Rico said the damage there is “the worst he has ever seen”.
Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan underscored the massive challenges facing the island.
“Sometimes we don’t know what’s going to happen until the storm actually hits,” he told PBS. “And this is the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Ahead of his visit, Mr Trump launched a series of attacks on the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who on Friday accused the Trump administration of “killing us with the inefficiency”.
She begged the President to “make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives” and appealed for help “to save us from dying”.
In one of many tweets published from his private golf club in New Jersey where he spent the weekend, Mr Trump said: “We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates... people are now starting to recognise the amazing work that has been done by Fema and our great military.”
We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates,...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
In an interview with The Independent, Ms Cruz said she believed Mr Trump had published his tweets, “just to spite us”.
Ms Cruz, who was told she could participate in a call with Mr Trump and various officials but not make any comment, said she was not concerned if she was now being sidelined.
“I respect the office of the presidency of the United States, but I expect whoever holds it to respect the people I represent… Talking about ingrates, to me that is an insult, it is indignity and perhaps I will accomplish more out on the streets saving lives.”
Before leaving Washington for Puerto Rico, Mr Trump suggested the issue had been smoothed over.
“Well, 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. And in Texas and in Florida, we get an A+,” he said.
“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. But now the roads are cleared, communications is starting to come back. We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks.”
Ahead of the visit, the White House claimed it had sough to contact the Mayor and involve her in efforts on restoring basic facilities for residents of the island.
“Our focus is to bring the Mayor into the coordination efforts,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in Washington. “This administration, as well as other members on the ground, have reached out to her. We hope that she will join with us in those efforts and be a part of things. She’s been invited to participate in the events tomorrow, as well.”
The president and the first lady were expected to spend more than five hours on the ground, meeting first responders, local officials and some residents.
At least parts of the itinerary were drawn to ensure a friendly reception: Mr Trump was visiting the houses of pre-selected families waiting on their lawns.
The president also handed out flashlights at a church, where 200 people cheered his arrival and crowded around him getting pictures on their cellphones.
“There's a lot of love in this room, a lot of love,” Mr Trump said. “Great people.” Although, not everyone felt the same. One sign that Mr Trump's motorcade past called the president a "bad hombre".
Ms Yulin Cruz attended Mr Trump's first event, in an airport hangar, shaking Mr Trump's hand as he went around a table greeting officials before sitting in in the shadow of a hulking, gray military plane.
"How are you?" he asked. Her response could not be heard, but he thanked her.
However, Mr Trump appeared to return to the issue in praising Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello for "not playing politics".
“I just want to tell you that right from the beginning this governor was not playing politics,” Mr Trump said during a meeting with local and federal officials. “He was giving us the highest grades.”