By Betsy Klein and Kevin Liptak, CNN
President Donald Trump vowed support for the ongoing relief and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico in somber remarks Friday, but later again touted his administration’s response to the ongoing devastation on the US territory.
“It’s been total devastation,” Trump said, before adding: “But I think it’s going really well, considering.”
Departing the White House on Friday afternoon ahead of a weekend at his New Jersey golf club, Trump said it was a “tough situation” on the island.
“The loss of life, it’s always tragic,” Trump said. “But it’s been incredible. The results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life. People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”
Trump praised the federal disaster response team that’s working to help the island recover, including his FEMA administrator and acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, who found herself accused of insensitivity after she called Puerto Rico a “good news story” on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, Trump offered support for the island during remarks at a manufacturing event in Washington.
“We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe. These are great people. We want them to be safe and sound and secure, and we will be there every day until that happens,” he said at the beginning of remarks to the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington.
Offering his “thoughts and prayers” to Puerto Ricans, Trump touted his administration’s “massive federal mobilization” in the face of an unprecedented storm, including the presence of over 10,000 federal personnel.
“The departments of Homeland Security and Defense are engaged fully in the disaster and the response and recovery effort, probably has never been seen for something like this,” Trump said.
He offered a defense of criticism that his administration was not working fast enough to provide relief to the millions of Americans on the island.
“This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water. We’re closely coordinated with the territorial and local governments, which are totally and unfortunately unable to handle this catastrophic crisis on their own, just totally unable to. The police and truck drivers are very substantially gone, they’re taking care of their families and largely unable to get involved, largely unable to help,” he said.
The President highlighted some of the massive devastation that has played out in the nine days since Hurricane Maria hit.
“There’s nothing left. It’s been wiped out. The houses are largely flattened, the roads are washed away. There is no electricity, the plants are gone. They’re gone, it’s not like send a crew in to fix them,” he said. “Have to build in brand new electric. Sewage system’s wiped out, never been anything like this. So there remains a lot of work to do and we will work with the folks who we’re working with right now, they’re trying very, very hard, I will tell you that, but nobody’s ever seen anything like it.”
Trump also raised questions about paying for recovery efforts in the future, pointing to Puerto Rico’s debt and its crumbling infrastructure ahead of the devastating storm.
“We’re literally starting from scratch. Ultimately, the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort — will end up being one of the biggest ever — will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” he said.
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