In what could be a major showcase moment in his scandal-tinged response to recently devastated Puerto Rico, a defensive U.S. President Donald Trump will be visiting the island to see first-hand the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria.
Trump continues to face widespread criticism for his handling of the storm in Puerto Rico, whose officials he has called “ungrateful,” “nasty,” and guilty of “poor leadership,” sparking accusations of racism toward the U.S.-held Caribbean territory.
The president is likely to face further scrutiny as the majority of Puerto Ricans remain without power and phone service, and are scrambling for food, clean water and fuel.
On Saturday, Trump slammed San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and remarked that Puerto Ricans wanted “everything to be done for them.” He launched his attack on the mayor during a weekend stay at his golf resort in New Jersey, where he attended the President’s Cup tournament on Sunday.
It is not clear if the two will meet during Trump's visit.
"She (Cruz) has been invited to participate in the events tomorrow, and we hope those conversations will happen and that we can all work together to move forward," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters on Monday.
Cruz has denied that an invitation was extended to her, and told The Independent that she was muted in conference calls with top White House officials.
“I read in tweet that someone said I got an invitation to see him,” she told The Independent. “I haven’t. I was invited to participate in a conference via a text,” she said. “I did. When I went into the call it said you are allowed in a listening capacity only…so I listened.”
She takes the social media missives in stride, noting that she has bigger problems on her hands.
“I have mouths to feed and frankly, sir... You can insult me all you want,” she said. “I can take it. But when you call my people ingrates - it’s more than an utter insult, it is a sublime acknowledgment that you don’t know our hearts … it pains me that some people refuse to provide whatever they can provide. Just to spite us.”
U.S. lawmakers have urged President Trump, on Sunday, to stop sniping at Puerto Ricans and get to work helping them recover. The head of state has loudly blasted the accusation while defending his administration’s response to the disaster.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long, on a trip to the island on Monday, said things were improving with traffic moving and businesses reopening.
"I didn't see anybody in a life-threatening situation at all," he told reporters. "We have a long way to go in recovery," adding that rebuilding Puerto Rico is "going to be a Herculean effort."
Trump faces difficult weeks, if not months, ahead in managing the U.S. territory. His senior general leading military relief operations in Puerto Rico, Lieutenant General Jeff Buchanan, said they were clearing roads and getting more supplies to people, but recognized “it’s still a long haul.”
As it tries to get back on its feet, Puerto Rico is in danger of running out of cash in a matter of weeks, because the economy has come to a halt in the hurricane’s aftermath, Rossello told the local El Nuevo Dia newspaper in an interview published on Monday.
Puerto Rico Evacuates Area Near Dam
After filing for the largest U.S. local government bankruptcy on record in May, Puerto Rico owes about $72 billion to creditors and another $45 billion or so in pension benefits to retired workers.
What little cash it has is now being diverted to emergency response while it works to secure aid from the federal government. The grinding halt to the economy will delay a fiscal recovery plan and negotiations with creditors.
"There is no cash on hand. We have made a huge effort to get US$2 billion in cash," Governor Ricardo Rossello said in an interview. "But let me tell you what US$2 billion means when you have zero collection: it's basically a month government’s payroll, a little bit more."
Trump's administration is preparing to ask Congress for US$13 billion in aid for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by natural disasters, congressional sources said. The island's recovery will likely cost more than $30 billion.