By MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has a ready answer for anyone who questions his administration’s response to the hurricanes that laid waste to Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and now Puerto Rico.
“We are doing a great job,” he declared on Tuesday in the Rose Garden. “We did a great job in Texas, a great job in Florida, a great job in Louisiana. We hit little pieces of Georgia and Alabama. And frankly,” he added, “we’re doing – “
Then he stopped himself to gild the lily even further.
Puerto Rico, Trump pointed out, posed a special challenge to disaster relief efforts. “It’s on an island in the middle of the ocean,” he observed to a reporter who asked him whether he had been too consumed by his feud with the National Football League to give it proper attention. “You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states.”
Despite those hurdles, he said, the territory’s governor, Ricardo A. Rossello, told him: “The entire federal workforce is doing great work in Puerto Rico. And I appreciated his saying it. And he’s saying it to anybody that will listen.”
So is Trump.
At his joint news conference with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, the president patted himself on the back no fewer than a dozen times about the competence of his administration’s relief effort. “Amazing,” “tremendous,” “incredible,” “really good” – those were the kudos Trump chose to describe the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government agencies, although in some cases he was repeating what he had been told by local officials.
“We have been really treated very, very nicely by the governor,” Trump said of Rossello, whose island is without power, water or fuel – putting it, the governor said on Monday, on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.
The busy hurricane season of 2017 has given fresh purpose to a president who, until now, made most of his own weather inside the West Wing. On Tuesday, he said he would visit Puerto Rico and the storm-ravaged Virgin Islands next week. The White House issued photos of a grave-looking Trump being briefed in the Situation Room.
But the hurricanes are yet another reminder of this president’s rare capacity for self-congratulation – a trait that seems particularly ill-suited to the aftermath of deadly disasters, when the plight of people who lost homes or even family members would seem to take precedence over testimonials to FEMA.
From the start, Trump has had trouble separating himself from the story. On his first visit to Texas after Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston, the president went to a firehouse in Corpus Christi, nearly 220 miles away, for a briefing with federal, state and local officials that stopped just short of being a pep rally. “We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished,” he told the group.
Outside, he greeted a crowd of about 1,000 who had gathered by saying, “What a crowd! What a turnout!”
Four days later, Trump returned to the state – this time, to meet actual victims of the storm. He handed out cardboard boxes with hot dogs and potato chips to residents in Houston, and talked about the love he had seen in the NRG Center, a convention center converted into a shelter for nearly 1,200 people. But he could not resist a victory lap.
“They’re really happy with what’s going on,” he told reporters traveling with him. “It’s something that’s been very well received. Even by you guys, it’s been very well received.”
Puerto Rico, unlike Texas and Florida, is not Trump country. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida trounced him in the Republican primary there in March 2016. And Trump has been noticeably less vocal about the damage from Hurricane Maria. Over the weekend, as Puerto Ricans ran perilously low on food, water and fuel, he posted nothing about the crisis.
Yet he posted 17 tweets about sports – from the dispute he single-handedly revived over the NFL and the national anthem to his withdrawal of an invitation for Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors to visit the White House. On Tuesday, Trump denied that he had neglected Puerto Rico in favor of his feud with professional athletes.
“I’ve heard that before: ‘Was I preoccupied?’” he said. “Not at all, not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work.”
Some residents of the Virgin Islands, parts of which were leveled by Irma, feel similarly overlooked by Washington. Kenneth E. Mapp, the governor, assured them that Trump had told him he “loves the Virgin Islands.”
When the president finally did get around to addressing Puerto Rico, on Monday, he led off with some unsympathetic observations about the territory’s well-publicized fiscal problems.
“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” he said in a series of tweets. “It’s old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well.”
On Tuesday, Trump said he had deployed Navy ships to Puerto Rico. His homeland security adviser, Thomas P. Bossert, and the FEMA administrator, Brock Long, traveled there to meet with officials. But even then, Trump said less about the resilience of the people than about the territory’s problems. The federal government, he said, had to take over some security because police officers, having lost their homes, had gone off duty.
After his news conference, Trump tweeted, “America’s hearts & prayers are with the people of #PuertoRico & the #USVI. We will get through this – and we will get through this TOGETHER!”
To the extent that Trump lauded Puerto Rican officials, however, it was for their praise and gratitude for his administration’s efforts.