President Trump rejected accusations Tuesday that he was too busy criticizing anti-U.S. protests by NFL players to direct aid to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, saying an important part of the presidency is promoting respect for America.
“I wasn’t preoccupied with the NFL,” Mr. Trump said at a White House press conference. “I was ashamed of what was taking place. I don’t think you can disrespect our country, our flag, our national anthem.”
Stepping up his feud with pro footballers, the president even said the rule-happy NFL should ban players from kneeling during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I think it’s a very important thing,” the president said, adding that he was “totally focused” on Puerto Rico’s recovery.
“But at the same time, it doesn’t take me long to put out a wrong, and maybe we will get it right,” he said of demonstrations against the national anthem.
Mr. Trump, who faced criticism for tweeting multiple times last weekend about the NFL protests while staying silent about Puerto Rico, announced that he will travel next week to the devastated island and to the U.S. Virgin Islands, both hit hard by Hurricane Irma. He also convened a meeting of federal emergency management officials at the White House.
“We’re doing everything in our power to help the hard-hit people of both places,” the president said.
But Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, warned that the island faces a humanitarian crisis and that many of the commonwealth’s 3.4 million residents will flee to the mainland U.S. unless more help arrives quickly. He urged Congress to approve a robust relief package.
“We need something tangible, a bill that actually answers to our need right now,” the governor said. “Otherwise, there will be … a massive exodus to the (mainland) United States.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Congress will act when it receives the necessary information from the administration to send aid.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” the Wisconsin Republican told reporters. “This is our country and these are our fellow citizens. I want the people of Puerto Rico to know that we are in this with them.”
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said that many elderly residents have been found in “near-death” conditions.
“No food, no water, no electricity, and really the sanitary conditions were deplorable,” Ms. Cruz said Tuesday on CNN.
Others criticized Mr. Trump for tweeting that Puerto Rico had been “already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt” before Irma hit.
“What on earth does that have to do with human hardship and need?” said former Rep. Harold Ford, a Democrat, on MSNBC. “For him to raise that issue at this moment, tone-deaf doesn’t begin to explain how out of touch he is.”
Former President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, said on MSNBC that Mr. Obama quickly convened all agency chiefs with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials during natural disasters.
“We haven’t seen that focus on the details from President Trump,” Mr. Earnest said. “The political price could be severe.”
Mr. Trump seemed especially eager to highlight praise for his administration’s hurricane response, and for himself personally, on Tuesday. He retweeted Mr. Rossello, who said he thanked the president during an emergency briefing “for his leadership, quick response & commitment to our people.”
“A massive effort is underway, and we have been really treated very, very nicely by the governor and by everybody else,” Mr. Trump said. “They know how hard we’re working and what a good job we’re doing.”
FEMA Administrator Brock Long, emerging from a meeting at the White House, said the federal government “is working tirelessly around the clock” to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He said there are 10 task forces working in Puerto Rico, plus 16 U.S. ships there, with another 10 ships en route, including the USS Comfort, a floating hospital.
Mr. Long noted that the president on Tuesday approved action for 100 percent reimbursement to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for debris removal, giving contractors more assurance of being fully repaid for their work.
But the FEMA chief also cautioned that Puerto Rico’s buildings suffered extensive damage, in part due to a lack of building codes, and that supplies must arrive by boat or plane.
“It’s an island. We don’t just drive trucks and resources onto an island,” he said.
⦁ Sally Persons contributed to this report.