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Trump's Puerto Rico visit an opportunity to reassure critics of hurricane response

100117 Morrongiello PR weekender photo
All eyes will be on President Trump next week when he travels to the devastated U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, whose hurricane-ravaged communities remain largely without food, electricity, and clean water ahead of his visit. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

All eyes will be on President Trump next week when he travels to the devastated U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, whose hurricane-ravaged communities remain largely without food, electricity, and clean water ahead of his visit.

Trump was scrutinized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle this week for his delay in waiving the Jones Act, a decades-old law that requires goods traveling between U.S. ports to ship exclusively on American vessels. Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Roselló had requested the waiver to better facilitate the delivery of basic supplies to the island, which was destroyed when Hurricane Maria made landfall as a category 5 storm earlier this month.

The criticism mounted when the president quipped to reporters Wednesday that "a lot of shippers" were resisting a temporary suspension of the Jones Act despite the devastation in Puerto Rico, causing his opponents to speculate that industry pressure was keeping the law in place.

"It is an unfounded complaint," Tom Bossert, Trump's homeland security adviser, later told reporters when pressed to answer for criticism of the Jones Act waiver delay.

Bossert argued Roselló had requested the waiver only as a proactive step and not in response to increased prices or slower delivery of goods.

Others panned acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke Friday when she said the "limited number of deaths" in Puerto Rico and the success of search-and-rescue efforts made for "a really good news story."

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz shot back in an interview with CNN hours later: "Dammit, this is not a good news story. This is a people-are-dying story."

Democrats have seized on the disaster in Puerto Rico, claiming the administration has the power to bring greater relief to victims of Maria by deploying more troops, opening additional airports and bringing in specialists to deal with blocked roads and lack of power across the island. Failed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics on Monday, urging Trump and the Defense Department to send the Navy and its East Coast hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to help with the ongoing relief effort. Officials ultimately agreed to send the ship.

"I think I share the general consensus that they've been a little slow," said Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who worked closely with Puerto Rico as a Treasury official under President Obama.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., whose state is currently dealing with its own recovery in the wake of Hurricane Irma, said on Wednesday that "drastic measures" would have to be taken if the administration's response continued to appear to be slow and insufficient.

Several critics of the president have accused him of demonstrating the same mismanagement that former President George W. Bush was lambasted for in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Rolling Stone editor Tom Dickinson wrote this week that "George W. Bush ate cake while New Orleans drowned — now Trump is making him seem statesmanlike by comparison." Like New Orleans, a heavily Democratic city where many residents already disliked Bush, mainland Puerto Ricans tend to vote Democratic and delivered just 13 percent support for Trump in the island territory's GOP primary last March.

"What you're seeing now with Puerto Rico is Democrats and a fair amount of the mainstream media is trying to recreate the Katrina narrative to hurt Trump," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell told the Washington Examiner. "The reality of the situation is the administration is doing what it can but because of the logistics and infrastructure in Puerto Rico, things aren't looking like they did in Miami or Houston."

"And a lot of Trump's political opponents are beginning to smell blood in the water," O'Connell said.

Puerto Rico suffered from a massive debt crisis long before Hurricane Maria tore through the island, and its preexisting economic woes could complicate its long term recovery efforts. Trump has already cited the commonwealth's "broken infrastructure" as an issue that has only exacerbated post-hurricane relief efforts, and he previously made headlines for tweeting that Puerto Ricans should not receive a fiscal "bail out" after its government began bankruptcy-like procedures in May.

"The Democrats want to shut government if we don't bail out Puerto Rico and give billions to their insurance companies for OCare failure. NO!" Trump tweeted at the time.

"As you know, there was a hundreds of millions, a huge investment of money by others before the storms. That money has been in serious trouble and now on top of it a lot of other money," Trump told reporters on Friday, a day after he tweeted about Puerto Rico's power grid being "totally shot."

"I do agree that a lack of investment in the power grid contributed to the extent of the devastation," Setser told the Washington Examiner, adding that the administration's focus going forward should be on getting the island's power grid "back up and running" and taking "a more active role in trying to address the forces that have contributed to underinvestment in Puerto Rico's infrastructure."

O'Connell suggested it would be wise for Trump to avoid discussing issues that preceded Maria during his visit to the island next week.

"I think it's a topic he should certainly stay away from even though the reality is that Puerto Rico's lousy infrastructure is one of the reasons why this disaster is so bad," he said, adding that Trump "has to be very careful" with how he discusses the situation so as not to appear as though he is blaming victims or lacks empathy.

Trump was accused of being cold and focusing too much on himself during his initial visit to Texas after Hurricane Harvey. But polling quickly showed a bump in his approval rating after he visited a second time and later spent hours with rescue workers and evacuees during a trip to Florida in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Sixty percent of Americans approved of the president's response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, according to a Fox News poll released Wednesday. The only other issue on which he earned net-positive approval was for the work he has done to stimulate the U.S. economy.

White House officials are scrambling to ensure the president maintains a positive rating while he and aides juggle disaster relief in Puerto Rico with the impending tax reform battle in Congress.

The Washington Examiner obtained talking points that the administration circulated to Republicans allies on Friday, urging them to defend its "phased approach to the delivery of personnel, resources, and equipment" to Puerto Rico.

"There are more than 10,000 federal staff representing 36 departments and agencies, including more than 800 Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel, on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands engaged in response and recovery operations from Hurricanes Maria and Irma," the document read.

Trump, who will head to Puerto Rico next Tuesday, said in a speech just before the weekend that "virtually everything has been wiped out" and it's going to take a "massive rebuilding effort" to restore the island to the popular tourist destination it had been for decades before Maria hit.

"We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe," Trump declared. "We want them to be safe and sound and secure, and we will be there every day until that happens."