President Trump visited Puerto Rico Tuesday as the island grapples with the devastation left by Hurricane Maria.
Trump has come under fire — most prominently from the mayor of the island’s capital, San Juan — for a federal response that critics say has been sluggish and ineffective.
The president has defended the response, and did so again on Tuesday. Beyond that, what were the main takeaways from his visit?
Awkward comments cast a long shadow
Trump’s unorthodox mode of communication led to some awkward moments during the visit.
At his first major engagement of the day, a briefing at an Air National Guard base in Carolina, Trump said, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
The off-the-cuff remark was clearly intended as a joke, and those in the room seemed to take it as such. But it landed with a thud among a broader audience, including those who accuse the president of downplaying Puerto Rico’s plight.
On Saturday, Trump stirred outrage by tweeting that some on the island “want everything to be done for them.”
At the Tuesday briefing, Trump also drew an awkward-sounding parallel between Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Katrina, which hammered Louisiana with disastrous results in 2005.
Trump said that people in Puerto Rico should be “very proud” that their official death toll stood at only 16 “versus literally thousands” in Katrina.
He also described Katrina as “a real catastrophe,” a remark that seemed to imply that the situation in Puerto Rico stopped short of that status.
Bad feelings linger with San Juan Mayor
Trump and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz have been in a tense rhetorical battle for days.
Cruz had taken exception to a remark by acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke that the response to Maria was “a good news story.”
After she voiced those criticisms, Trump tweeted that Cruz was showing “such poor leadership ability.” The president also alleged that Cruz had been “very complimentary” only days before but “has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.”
Given the evident animosity, there was some surprise when Cruz was invited to attend the Trump briefing.
In the end, she was seated some distance away from him, and the president conspicuously did not mention her during his expansive compliments of other officials.
In fact, he seemed to take an indirect jab at Cruz when he said of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, “He’s not even from my party, but he started right from the beginning appreciating what we did.”
Rosselló, who is a Democrat, was seated directly beside Trump at the briefing.
Cruz afterward told CNN that Trump had a “lack of sensibility” and that the most productive time at the briefing was spent with White House staffers.
Trump got cover from some Puerto Rican politicians
Trump won praise from other politicians on the island, despite the San Juan mayor’s criticisms.
Rosselló was very complimentary throughout the day.
Standing beside Trump during an afternoon visit to Guaynabo, the governor said that the president and first lady, Melania Trump, coming to the island “shows a commitment to being here for the long haul, helping us get the emergency help, helping us get the stability, and then rebuilding Puerto Rico stronger than before.”
At the briefing earlier, Congresswoman Jenniffer Gonzáles-Colón, the current resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, praised the response to the hurricane. She said that there was a “level of communication” between the federal government and the government of the island “like never before.”
Those remarks give Trump some measure of political protection, so long as the situation in Puerto Rico improves soon.
The symbolism was good for Trump
Despite the awkwardness of some of Trump’s remarks, the footage of the Puerto Rico visit that played on cable news throughout the day was largely positive for the president.
Residents of the island gave him a warm reception, and there was never a moment when anger was vented against him.
At close quarters with the general public, the president displays little of the bombast and combativeness that mark his rallies and TV interviews.
There were still odd moments, as when Trump threw paper towels into a crowd, basketball-style, and when he told a family dealing with the hurricane’s aftermath, “We’re going to help you out. Have a good time.”
At such moments, he can resemble a party host rather than a president consoling victims of a natural disaster.
For the most part, however, the White House will be happy with the imagery of Tuesday’s trip.
Partisans will be unmoved
Opinions of Trump are so fixed, both for and against, that it is hard to see how one event moves a large number of people either into or out of his camp — unless it is truly exceptional.
There was nothing during his Puerto Rico visit that rose to that level. Liberal critics will be appalled at his idiosyncratic remarks; conservative supporters will be enthused by his visit to a community in need.
In short, nothing changed the Trump narrative for either side.
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