President Trump seemed to diminish the unfolding disaster happening in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria while visiting the devastated island on Tuesday, saying it wasn't a "real catastrophe" like Hurricane Katrina.
Trump visited the US territory — whose residents are US citizens — after getting repeatedly criticized for the sluggish federal response, and then lashing out against that criticism by lambasting the San Juan mayor when she begged for help. He also indicated the people of Puerto Rico were looking for handouts.
Trump delivered a bizarre, train-of-thought speech during his first stop, a meeting with military and local leaders, repeatedly applauding the response to the disaster and congratulating his staff. People who live on the island are still widely without electricity, running water, telecommunications, and access to basic aid.
But in the midst of the celebration, Trump — in a seeming attempt to congratulate local officials on what he determined to be a low death count — compared the hurricane to Katrina, which caused up to 1,800 fatalities along Gulf Coast and obliterated several poorer neighborhoods of New Orleans.
"Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering," Trump said.
"What is your death count?" Trump asked the Puerto Rican governor, Ricardo Rosselló.
"Sixteen, certified," he replied.
"Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands," Trump said, comparing it to Katrina.
"You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what's been taking place in Puerto Rico."
Trump's comments will likely increase criticism of him by people who say he doesn't see the US territory as equal to the states.
Trump also taunted Puerto Rico for its current financial state. The island is in a form of bankruptcy, having spent decades taking on more and more debt — and now it will need a lot more money for repairs.
"Mick Mulvaney is here" — the director of the Office of Management and Budget, one of a cadre of cabinet officials Trump took with him — "and Mick is in charge of a thing called budget."
"Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you're throwing our budget a little out of whack because we've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that's fine. We've saved a lot of lives," Trump said.
Trump also utterly lavished praise on his staff.
About Brock Long, the FEMA administrator, Trump said, "He's been unbelievable. And this has been the toughest one."
"This is a Category 5, which few people have ever heard of," Trump said, implying people aren't familiar with storm categories. "But it hit land, and boy, did it hit land," Trump added, which is untrue. The hurricane made landfall as a Category 4 on Sept. 20.
At one point, he called up his chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general.
"You know, and I don't even have to mention the Marines because we have Gen. Kelly. Where's Gen. Kelly? Where is our Gen. Kelly?" Trump said.
"He likes to keep a low profile — look at him sitting in the back — but boy, is he watching. You have no idea how he is. So Gen. Kelly is a four-star. Not a bad general, right? You don't get any better than Gen. Kelly. But on behalf of the Marines, they have done some job, general," he said, as Kelly awkwardly walked up to Trump.
“I want to thank you and thank Elaine. Elaine, thank you very much. Fantastic acting secretary. Elaine Duke has been incredible,” Trump said of the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which began what was an outpouring of thanks and praise for his administration. “Tom Bossert is here someplace. Tom, great job. Great job,” Trump continued.
“And to all of my people... and I have to say Gen. Buchanan, got here a few days ago. And there's no doubt about it, you’re a general. There’s a reason you’re a general, right?” Trump continued.
Later Trump also thanked Linda McMahon, administrator of the Small Business Administration, for being “amazing in business.”
"She has done an incredible job — built a great company with her husband, Vince McMahon,” Trump said, talking about the WWE. "And I wanted her so badly for this position because there's nobody that knows how to build a company like those. And let me tell you like this woman — she has been amazing in business and now she's doing an incredible job as the administrator."
Watch the full event here:
Additional reporting by Matthew Zeitlin.
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