WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After well-received responses to two major hurricanes that hit the U.S. mainland, President Donald Trump is battling to show Americans he can handle yet another natural disaster - this time in Puerto Rico - despite being caught up in another Twitter war.
Caught off guard by the severity of Hurricane Maria’s damage to the U.S. island territory, Trump did not focus on the storm for days, instead launching a barrage of tweets over his view that National Football League players should be required to stand during the U.S. national anthem.
Trump insisted to reporters on Tuesday that he was not preoccupied with the NFL controversy and that he could multi-task. He said he would visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday.
“I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work,” he said.
But with the territory’s 3.4 million people struggling to get food, water, power and shelter, Democratic leaders in Congress and some Puerto Rico residents, who are U.S. citizens, accused the Trump administration of being more sluggish in its response than to disasters on the U.S. mainland.
The previous Republican president, George W. Bush, faced widespread criticism for his administration’s initial handling of Hurricane Katrina, which killed some 1,800 people in and around New Orleans in 2005.
As of Tuesday, Trump had tweeted two dozen times about the NFL controversy and only began tweeting about Puerto Rico when he started to draw criticism. In tweets on Monday night, he said Puerto Rico was in “deep trouble” and noted its massive debt crisis.
“Trump certainly seemed to be on top of the situation with Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Hurricane Irma in Florida. With Puerto Rico, because of this distraction, there is maybe the perception that he hasn’t been on top of the situation,” said presidential historian Thomas Alan Schwartz.
When Trump finally started talking about Puerto Rico, he gave mixed signals, saying on the one hand that Puerto Rico was in trouble, while lauding his administration’s response on the other.
“I just question the victory laps that the president is taking already,” said Lars Anderson, who was a senior Federal Emergency Management Agency official in Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration, and now runs a crisis communications firm called BlueDot Strategies.
Trump will have the opportunity next week during his visit to Puerto Rico to use the presidential bully pulpit to draw attention to the need for more resources, Anderson said.
“I’m glad to see that the White House is actually acknowledging the situation there,” he said.
The White House stepped up its efforts to show Trump in charge of the crisis, organizing a meeting of major Cabinet officials to go over the federal response to Puerto Rico. An official photo of the meeting in the Situation Room showed Trump at the head of a long table, getting briefed on the crisis.
After it ended, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and Brock Long, head of the FEMA, briefed reporters on the federal response.
“The response to date has been phenomenal,” Duke said.
On Tuesday night, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said he was satisfied with the administration’s relief efforts and called Trump’s performance “excellent.”
U.S. officials stressed that the federal disaster system kicked into gear days ago to provide food, water and rolled sheeting for roofs. The U.S. military was increasing its flights bearing emergency aid to 10 per hour, an official said.
Trump supporters said people may be expecting too much from a federal response for an island territory whose electrical grid and infrastructure were already in poor shape before Maria came blowing through.
“There is no way to be prepared to rebuild an island with 3 million people on it in three months. It’s beyond anybody’s capability to do so,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser.
Trump’s use of Twitter to fan controversy has been one area that his control-minded White House chief of staff, John Kelly, has been unable to tamp down. Privately, aides said there was likely not much Kelly could do about it.
“Nobody can get him off Twitter,” said one administration official.
Reporting by Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Cooney