Amid criticism, Trump ramps up Puerto Rico response

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"Puerto Rico is very important to me," Trump said

Trump announced Tuesday he would visit the island next week

CNN  — 

President Donald Trump on Tuesday intensified his personal involvement in the growing crisis in Puerto Rico amid criticism that his response to the devastation there was lackluster.

There was an increased sense of urgency at the White House in confronting the situation, including Trump’s announcement – a surprise to some aides – that he would travel there in a week to survey damage left over from the storm.

“Puerto Rico is very important to me, and Puerto Rico – the people are fantastic people,” Trump said before meeting with lawmakers in the Roosevelt Room on Tuesday. “I grew up in New York, so I know many people from Puerto Rico. I know many Puerto Ricans. And these are great people, and we have to help them. The island is devastated.”

After critics, Republican and Democratic alike, accused Trump of ignoring the situation in public – choosing instead to focus his attention on stirring controversy over NFL players’ National Anthem protests – the West Wing on Tuesday was the site of a flurry of activity designed to show Trump taking charge of the matter.

“The crisis for these Americans needs more attention – and more urgency from the executive branch. The potable water problems are substantial,” Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, tweeted Monday night.

He was echoing a sentiment voiced by Sen. Marco Rubio, a fellow Republican, who wrote that more crews are needed to restore power on the island.

“Returning from #PuertoRico now. Tremendous damage. Potential for serious crisis in areas outside of #SanJuan MUST get power crews in ASAP,” Rubio tweeted on Monday.

Joined by his homeland security adviser and acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Trump on Tuesday spoke by video conference with Puerto Rico’s governor. Photos released by the White House showed Trump, his arms crossed, listening alongside grim-faced aides as Puerto Rico’s governor provided them with an update.

In the afternoon, the White House made a late addition to the President’s schedule, publicizing his plans to meet with his top advisers in the Situation Room to discuss hurricane relief efforts.

Earlier in the day, Trump approved a change in the island’s disaster declaration that increases federal funding for debris removal.

Chafing at criticism

US President Donald Trump holds a joint press conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, September 26, 2017.
Trump: I wasn't preoccupied with the NFL
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White House officials say Trump has chafed at criticism that his administration has been slow in responding to the crisis in Puerto Rico, particularly compared to his quick trips to Texas and Florida after storms devastated those states.

After his top homeland security adviser Tom Bossert returned from the island, Trump demanded that aides work to schedule a trip there, despite the logistical challenges that persist. One source said the President was told upon Bossert’s return that Tuesday was the earliest he could visit the island.

The President’s decision to visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday came suddenly for some at the White House, who as of Monday afternoon were not planning for Trump to travel there that quickly, a White House official said.

The White House on Monday night even announced plans for Trump to welcome the Thai prime minister to the White House next Tuesday – a meeting now likely to be rescheduled.

Staffers on Monday had instead been planning for the President to head to the US Virgin Islands, with a Puerto Rico trip to come later. Instead, Trump will visit both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands during his trip next week. White House officials who advance the President’s trips were notified only Tuesday morning of the change of plans.

The decision to speed up plans for a presidential visit to Puerto Rico came as the media spotlight turned to the unraveling situation on the US territory, where reports of hundreds of thousands of people without sufficient water or access to basic services have emerged.

It also came as critics accused the President of focusing more of his attention – at least on social media – on the controversy he created by launching a days-long tirade against NFL players who have taken a knee during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

Trump has been insistent about visiting Puerto Rico as quickly as possible, two sources said. And Trump picked next Tuesday after his advisers said it was the earliest date a visit could be possible, one source said.

Speaking outside the White House on Tuesday, FEMA administrator Brock Long said that all access to the island should be limited to life-saving activity.

“If you’re going to Puerto Rico right now, it should only be for a life-sustaining, life-supporting mission. Everybody who is trying to get in that is not supporting that is getting in the way,” he said.

It wasn’t clear whether the President’s sense of urgency in making a visit was prompted by the criticism he has faced or the intensifying glare of media scrutiny over the federal response.

There has been a growing sense in the West Wing of the need to scale up the White House’s efforts, even as the administration insists the federal response to the situation has been above par.

Trump touts ‘great job’

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Trump says administration preparing for Irma
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Trump on Tuesday sharply rebuffed concerns about the federal response to the disaster, bragging that Puerto Rico’s elected officials were grateful for the actions his administration has taken to respond so far.

“The governor of Puerto Rico was so thankful for the great job that we’re doing,” Trump said in the Rose Garden during a news conference with the prime minister of Spain. “It’s the most difficult job because it’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s out in the ocean. You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states.”

The situation in Puerto Rico is the third major disaster in the last month Trump and his administration have had to confront, following major hurricanes that led to massive flooding, damage and power outages primarily in Texas and Florida. The US Virgin Islands, which Trump will also visit on Tuesday, were hit by both Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The federal government has deployed thousands of relief workers to Puerto Rico since the storm, according to federal authorities.

On Tuesday, the government announced the US military would deploy the Navy hospital ship Comfort to the island, though it won’t arrive there for days. The vessel is minimally manned in Norfolk, Virginia, by a crew of about 18 civilian mariners, though additional forces will now be activated to man the ship. It could provide as many as 1,200 hospital beds.

On CNN Tuesday, the acting-Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke said her agency was sufficiently funded to contend with the dire needs on Puerto Rico.

“We are absolutely prepared financially,” Duke said. “We are working hand-in-hand with Congress and the White House to ensure that we have the funds to perform these essential missions for all three of the hurricanes.”

As of Monday morning, FEMA had around $5 billion in disaster relief reserves that was allocated after Hurricane Harvey barreled through Texas last month. An additional $6.7 billion will be available on October 1, when funding for the next fiscal year kicks in.

Congressional and White House sources said they expected the administration to request additional emergency funding in early- to mid-October.