President defends Puerto Rico response amid NFL furor

President defends Puerto Rico response amid NFL furor
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President Trump on Tuesday rejected criticism that he is preoccupied with the NFL at a time when the administration is facing a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. 

“I wasn’t preoccupied with the NFL, I was ashamed with what’s taking place,” Trump said when asked about his criticism of athletes who protest during the national anthem.

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Trump stressed his belief that the league should ban players from kneeling during the anthem, calling the act “disgraceful.” 

“I don’t think you can disrespect our country, our flag, our national anthem. To me, the NFL situation is a very important situation. I’ve heard that before about, ‘was I preoccupied’ — not at all, not at all,” he said.

“I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work. And to be honest with you that’s an important part of working: It’s called respect of our country.”

Pointing to his Twitter feed, critics have questioned whether Trump is fully engaged in the federal response to Hurricane Maria. He has tweeted 22 times about the anthem controversy since Saturday, and just five times about Puerto Rico.

While rejecting such criticism, Trump and his team on Tuesday appeared to put a renewed emphasis on the administration’s disaster response.

Trump announced plans to travel to Puerto Rico on Tuesday to survey the damage and receive an update on the disaster-relief efforts. He also plans to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were hit hard by the storm.

The president also spoke with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló during a disaster-response briefing with Vice President Pence and top Homeland Security officials in the Situation Room.

Afterward, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long touted a disaster response that he said involved 10,000 federal workers, including members of the Army Corps of Engineers who have been sent to rebuild the island’s electricity grid.

Yet he acknowledged the storm is “a logistically challenging, very unique event.” Airports, ports and roads have all suffered damage, making it difficult to deliver aid supplies to citizens in need.

Democrats have been withering in their criticism of Trump’s Puerto Rico response, citing his role in the NFL controversy.

“We’re … concerned about the lack of attention the president has given toward these national disasters, and instead has chosen to tweet about nonsensical things,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), a Puerto Rico native who visited the island on Friday with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), described the devastation on the island in near-apocalyptic terms.

“I didn’t recognize what I saw. … Pure devastation,” Velázquez said. “My concern is, based on the behavior of our commander in chief, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE, and the tweets that he put out, that he doesn’t grasp the severity of the crisis.”

“If you don’t take this crisis seriously,” she warned the president, “this is going to be your Katrina.”

But Rosselló, who is also a Democrat, defended Trump and the administration’s initial emergency response.

“The president has been attentive to our situation. I can confirm that and I would like that to be communicated,” Rosselló told The Hill.

Rosselló expressed hope that Puerto Rico’s recovery does not become politicized.

“I don’t think this should become an issue of Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “It’s a humanitarian issue.”

Trump received bipartisan praise for his responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which slammed Texas and Florida, respectively, and saw his approval ratings rise.

But his response to Maria poses a bigger test; like other presidents before him, he risks suffering political damage if the government takes too long to help storm victims.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Pelosi blasts California Republicans for supporting tax bill MORE, Trump’s former election foe, said the president’s obsession with athlete protests has blinded him to the plight of Puerto Ricans. 

“He has not said one word about them, about other American citizens in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I’m not sure he knows that Puerto Ricans are American citizens,” she said Monday in a radio interview with SiriusXM’s Zerlina Maxwell.

Trump rejected that criticism. “Puerto Rico is very important to me,” he said.

“The people are fantastic people,” he told reporters at the White House before a meeting on tax reform. “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.”

Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said it’s too early to judge the government’s response because of the scale of the disaster.

“I don’t think anybody’s sorted out the totality of things going on over there,” said Redlener. “It’s hard to judge because we don’t know what the denominator is.”

“It’s one of the biggest disasters in history, and the thing is it made a bull’s-eye on this island,” he added.

But Redlener emphasized that the federal government “is delivering a lot of assets” to Puerto Rico.

Because of the island’s dilapidated infrastructure even before the storm, however, it could take weeks or even months to assess the true extent of the damage.