- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2017

President Trump walked along debris-strewn streets Tuesday in Puerto Rico, handed out supplies and offered distraught residents reassurance that the federal government would stick with them through a tough recovery process.

And with each step, he challenged the notion that the Trump administration isn’t doing enough.

“What I see is an incredible job done by FEMA, the Air Force and the Navy,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he entered Calvary Chapel in Guaynabo, near San Juan, where he would hand out bags of rice and other supplies.

A huge cheer greeted Mr. Trump when he walked into the chapel. People hoisted signs that read “Proud Americans,” “Let’s Make Puerto Rico Great Again” and “God Bless You Mr. President.”

“There’s a lot of love in this room, a lot of love,” said Mr. Trump, who was accompanied by first lady Melania Trump.

Later on Tuesday Mr. Trump reportedly made the radical suggestion that Puerto Rico’s crippling $70 billion debt may have to be wiped off the books, regardless of what that means to the Wall Street holders of that debt.

“They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday in an interview with Fox News.

“You’re going to say goodbye to that, I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that,” he warned.

The president got warm welcomes throughout his extensive tour of the hurricane-ravaged island, but he was also surrounded by evidence of the hardships a majority of Puerto Ricans still face nearly two weeks after the last storm hit.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory where residents are U.S. citizens, suffered a brutal double whammy from Hurricane Irma that hit Sept. 6 and the stronger Hurricane Maria that struck Sept. 20. Maria knocked out power, water and transportation systems.

Nearly two weeks later, 95 percent of electricity customers still don’t have power and 45 percent of the island doesn’t have clean water.

Mr. Trump insisted that the federal response deserved an “A+” grade in Puerto Rico, the same as it got for the robust response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, he said.

However, relief efforts have moved much slower in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, one of the president’s fiercest defenders, blamed the slow progress on the difficult logistics for getting aid to the island and over damaged roads to the countryside.

On Tuesday the known death toll nearly doubled, to 34, and Puerto Rican officials warned that these numbers don’t include the secondary effects of people suffering from lack of drinking water and electricity.

Irwin Redlener, director of National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said the Trump administration’s stellar performance in Texas and Florida was not repeated in Puerto Rico.

The extent of the damage to infrastructure, much of which was in bad shape before the storm, required a larger U.S. military response than was deployed. The military is the only federal entity able to create the supply chain with trucks, helicopters and manpower needed to reach every corner of the island, he said.

“The president has been saying what a fantastic job he’s been doing and the federal government has been doing, but that does not match the reality of what people are actually seeing and feeling in Puerto Rico,” said Mr. Redlener, who recently visited the island.

Mr. Trump has said the negative reports in the news media undermined morale of first responders. He also said the critics were politically motivated.

During the visit he confronted face-to-face one of his harshest critics on the island, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. The two feuded on Twitter and in the news media last week over the pace of recovery efforts.

She has said the Trump administration was “killing us with inefficiency.” He fired back that Puerto Rico wants “everything to be done for them.”

Mr. Trump said Tuesday that Ms. Cruz was finally changing her tune.

“She’s come back a long way. I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done,” he said.

Ms. Cruz attended a briefing with the president at Muniz Air National Guard Base in San Juan.

Mr. Trump lauded the work of Cabinet officials and the military. He also singled out Mr. Rossello for “not playing politics” with the storm.

“Right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics,” he said. “He was saying it like it was and he gets the highest grades. And on behalf of our country, I want to thank you.”

In his remarks he didn’t mention Ms. Cruz while commending the efforts of other Puerto Rico leaders. She was one of the few Puerto Rico officials to criticize the president, and her comments dominated much of the news coverage.

Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon, Puerto Rico’s delegate to Congress, highly praised the administration’s work.

“All this time we had the federal government by our side, doing the job for the people here, like you in the military doing all that has been asked,” she said at the briefing. “The president and his Cabinet send more people and continue to send more people, trucks, drivers and resources. Thank you, Mr. President, for all you did for the island.”

Mr. Trump joked that the effort was breaking the budget.

“You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine,” he said. “We’ve saved a lot of lives.”

Back in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer scoffed at the remark.

“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,” said the New York Democrat. “I don’t remember the president telling Texas that they threw our budget out of whack.”

Mr. Trump also visited the USS Kearsage, where he met with U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp and participated in a briefing on recovery efforts for the territory, which was also hard hit by hurricanes.

Mr. Mapp heaped praise on the administration. “Because of your commitment, Mr. President, we’re talking about opening schools and welcoming cruise ships back,” he said.

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