President Donald Trump met with local leaders and federal responders shortly after landing at an Air Force base in Carolina, Puerto Rico, for what was supposed to be a briefing on the situation on the island.
Instead, Trump turned it into an opportunity to congratulate himself and the federal government's response to the disaster and to say the island should be “very proud” of its low official death count.
He downplayed throughout his remarks how dire things are in Puerto Rico, where more than half of the people don't have power, running water, or cellphone service two weeks after Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, tore through the island.
"We have gone all out for Puerto Rico," Trump said during the televised briefing Tuesday. "It's not only dangerous, it's expensive."
And while Puerto Rico clearly needs much more aid — including help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair its damaged infrastructure — Trump decided to focus on how much money it had already spent.
"I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you are throwing our budget out of whack," he said. "We've spent a lot of money in Puerto Rico."
(As I explain here, FEMA has yet to authorize full disaster aid for Puerto Rico).
The most uncomfortable part of Trump's remarks came when he began to compare Puerto Rico to Hurricane Katrina based on how many people had died, implying what was happening in Puerto Rico wasn’t a “real catastrophe.”
“If you look at the — every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds of people that died and what happened here with a storm that was just totally overbearing. No one has ever seen anything like that. What is your death count?" he said.
"Sixteen," responded Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
"Sixteen certified," Trump said, and then told the leaders assembled that they should all be "very proud."
The reality is that the death count is far higher, as my colleague Eliza Barclay has noted. The situation is so bad in Puerto Rico that the government can't even issue death certificates to count the deceased.
Below is a rush transcript of Trump's remarks during the briefing in Puerto Rico.
TRUMP: All of a sudden, we said there is another one heading to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, but it wasn't one, it was two. I was going to be here a week ago, if you remember. That was the day of the hurricane. That was the day of the second hurricane.
[FEMA Administrator] Brock has been unbelievable. This has been the toughest one. This is a Category 5, which few people have ever heard of. It hit land, and boy did it hit land. I want to thank you and thank Elaine. Fantastic acting secretary. Elaine Duke has been incredible. Tom Bossert here someplace. Great job. To all of my people and Gen. Buchanan, who got here a few days ago. No doubt about it. You are a general. [Audio drops out] No games. You have done a fantastic job. The whole team has been amazing.
Your governor, who has been, and I didn't know, and I heard good things about him. He is not even from my party and started at the beginning appreciating what we did. He was tremendously supportive and knew the level of the problem before and what happened with respect to the tremendous storms that hit. I want to tell you that right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics at all. He didn't play it at all. He was saying it like it was. He was giving us the highest grades. On behalf of our country, I want to thank you.
I also want to thank your congresswoman, who actually represents the largest number of people of any Congress person in the United States. I know that. It's 3.5 million people, Jennifer, right? Congresswoman Jenniffer González, who I have watched the other day, and she was saying such nice things about all of the people that worked so hard. Jennifer, do you think you can say a little bit of what you said about us today? It's about the incredible people from the military to FEMA and the first responders. I have never seen people working so hard in my life. Perhaps you can say?
REP. JENNIFFER GONZÁLEZ-COLÓN: Thank you, Mr. President. The first thing is before we were hit by Maria, we were hit by Hurricane Irma. During that time before the hurricane, he was FEMA acting together. More than 4,000 people were here from the different branches of the military. Army and FEMA and all the staff working together before the hurricane. They were here before, during, after the first hurricane, and they continue to stay on the island and boots on the ground during Maria. Same thing. We never got the level of communication within the federal and the local government like never before.
We are used to seeing the hurricanes, but never before a Category 5. The amount of devastation is unheard of. During all this time, we got the federal government by our side, doing the job of the people here like you and the military doing all that is done. All the questions the governor did. The president and his Cabinet accomplished it and sent more people and continued to send more trucks and drivers and resources. Thank you, Mr. President, for all you have been doing for the island.
TRUMP: I want to thank you. You were really generous. I saw those comments and everybody saw those comments, and we really appreciate it. It's so important when you have men and women that have worked so hard and so long, and many of them came from two other catastrophic hurricanes. They came from Texas and they came from Louisiana and came from Florida. There was no — how many nights’ rest have you gotten?
[OFF-CAMERA ANSWER]: This is day 43.
TRUMP: We will keep him for another couple of weeks. By that time — come here. Special guy. I will tell you. Special. In addition to Tom, I want to thank [Small-Business Administration head] Lisa McMahon. I always joke, I said she is in charge of small business and small business is massive business when you add it up. She has done an incredible job. Built a great company with her husband, Vince McMahon. I wanted her so badly for this position. Nobody knows how to build a company like those. Like this woman. She has been amazing in business, and we want to thank you very much.
Mick Mulvaney is here, and Mick is in charge of a thing called budget. I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you are throwing our budget out of whack. We spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that's fine. We saved a lot of lives. If you look at the — every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds of people that died and what happened here with a storm that was just totally overbearing. No one has ever seen anything like that. What is your death count?
PUERTO RICO GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: Sixteen.
TRUMP: Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everyone around this table and everyone watching can be very proud of what's taking place in Puerto Rico.
I also want to pay a very special thanks to the Navy. Who is here from the Navy? Who do we have? What a job. You have ships all over the place. I said boy, this looks like very big stuff. The job you have done getting things here, there are no docks. They are in the process of opening them up. They were devastated. No docks and no nothing. The way you got this is incredible. I want to thank the Navy. Would you like to say something?
NOT IDENTIFIED: [Inaudible] ... to get here and handle anything that happened. They are able to respond to Puerto Rico, what's happening here, to save lives with FEMA and with the governor of Puerto Rico and to demonstrate our ability to come from the land. Thank you very much.
TRUMP: Thank you very much. I don't have to mention the Marines. Where is Gen. Kelly? Boy, is he watching. Gen. Kelly is a four-star. Not a bad general. You don't get any better than Gen. Kelly. On behalf of the Marines, they have done some job, general. Can we also mention Army and can we also mention some people that I really got to know and respect even more in Texas, and that's the Coast Guard. What a job the Coast Guard has done throughout this thing. What a job the Coast Guard has done throughout this whole — [inaudible] They would go right into the middle of it. I want to thank the Coast Guard.
They are special people. A lot of people got to see the real Coast Guard in this trouble. In Texas was incredible for what they did. Thank you very much. We appreciate it. We would like to say something on behalf of your men and women.
UNIDENTIFIED: I'm representing the Air Force.
TRUMP: I know that.
UNIDENTIFIED: We have the team effort for FEMA and also the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico specifically and trying to open up the airfields that begin as they get the majority of the supplies in and setting up across the island with the numbers. We can get to the most devastated by it.
TRUMP: And the runways are pretty open?
UNIDENTIFIED: Yes, sir. We have four major runways that are operational and about 700-plus strategic stories on the island of Puerto Rico to provide the license to them.
TRUMP: Amazing job. So amazing, we are ordering hundreds of millions of dollars of new airplanes for the Air Force. Especially the F-35. You like the F-35?
UNIDENTIFIED: Game-changing [inaudible]. Awesome airplane.
TRUMP: I said how does it do in fights, how do they do in fights with the F-35? They said we do really well, you can’t see it. You literally can’t see it. So it’s hard to fight a plane you can’t see.
UNIDENTIFIED: Yes, sir.
TRUMP: But that's an expensive plane you can't see. As you heard, we cut the price substantially, something that other administrations would never have done. That I can tell you. Thank you very much. Where is the Coast Guard? Who can speak on behalf of the Coast Guard? Who can speak? Where is the Coast Guard representative? Come here. Get over here. Come here. On behalf of the Coast Guard. Say a few words. Go ahead.
UNIDENTIFIED: I don't think there is anything that the men and women would rather do than help the people of Puerto Rico. Our fellow American citizens, for us, this is what we get to do on a daily basis. Getting to help our fellow citizens is what our duty is all about. It's our pleasure to be here, sir.
TRUMP: In Texas, it came in and did devastation and went out into the coast. It came in three times and would lot up and come in. Nobody has ever seen water like that. They saved 16,000 lives in Texas. Hard to believe. Between the helicopters and all of them. The Coast Guard in Texas saved 16,000 lives. They went through the hurricane, and there are not too many people who would have done it. Believe me.