Five things to watch as Trump visits Puerto Rico

Five things to watch as Trump visits Puerto Rico
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President Trump is heading to Puerto Rico Tuesday to survey the devastation from Hurricane Maria after he attacked San Juan's mayor and others for criticizing the federal response to the disaster.

First lady Melania Trump will accompany President Trump on the trip, which comes as the White House has been scrambling to show it is on top of the crisis.

Nearly two weeks after the Category 4 hurricane ravaged the island, the situation in Puerto Rico is still unfolding: Some 55 percent of the 3.4 million residents are still without access to drinking water, and only 5 percent of the power grid has been restored.

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“We’re going to be seeing all of the first responders, the military, [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], and frankly, most importantly, we’re going to be seeing the people of Puerto Rico,” Trump said Monday. “It’s been amazing what’s been done, in a very short period of time, in Puerto Rico.”

But while conditions in the disaster zone have been slowly improving, there are still numerous roadblocks hampering federal relief efforts, including destroyed roads and bridges, a lack of telecommunications and a shortage of truck drivers.

Here are five things to watch during Trump’s visit.

1) Will Trump face off with San Juan’s mayor?

All eyes will be on when Trump comes face to face with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz after they both publicly criticized each other's responses to the storms.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday night that Cruz plans to attend a briefing that Trump and the first lady will be receiving on recovery and response efforts

“Our focus is to bring the mayor into the coordination efforts,” Sanders said. “We hope that she will join with us in those efforts, and be part of things she’s been invited to participate in. ... We hope that those conversations happen and we can all work together to move forward.”

Trump’s visit comes days after Cruz criticized the hurricane response efforts and made an emotional plea for someone to take charge of emergency relief operations, heightening the sense of urgency on the island.

“I will do what I never thought I was going to do: I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying,” Cruz said Friday afternoon. “If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency.”

Trump lashed out at Cruz in a series of tweets on Saturday morning, slamming her leadership and suggesting that her comments were politically motivated.

“The mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” Trump tweeted.

"Such poor leadership ability by the mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help.”

When pressed on whether she would be willing to meet with Trump following his attacks on Twitter, Cruz said “of course.” She emphasized that the goal right now is to save lives and that everything else, including “petty comments,” are just a distraction.

“If he asks to meet with me, of course I will meet with him," Cruz said Sunday on ABC's "This Week.” "Any dialogue that goes on just has to be able to produce results.”

"And all I did last week, or even this week, was ask for help,” she added.

2) Will Trump’s tone be divisive or unifying?

Trump’s angry tweets over the weekend also included complaints that the media was unfairly covering the hurricane devastation and a suggestion that Puerto Ricans want “everything done for them” when it comes to relief efforts.

The comments sparked widespread condemnation from Democratic lawmakers and Puerto Rican officials.

But the president could strike a more unifying tone as he meets with storm survivors and first responders on the U.S. island territory.

“I expect the focus to be on the recovery efforts,” said Sanders, when pressed on whether there would be any tensions during Trump’s visit.

However, Trump has waded into other sticky issues when talking about the Puerto Rico crisis over the past week.

Trump’s first tweets last Monday pointed out that the territory “was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt” and that billions of dollars are “owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”

Trump also suggested during a speech last week that the government of Puerto Rico “will have to work with us” to determine how the rebuilding process will be funded.

The comments have fueled criticism that the White House is treating the island territory differently than states hit by hurricanes.

3) Trump as comforter in chief?

Trump’s interactions on the ground during the roughly five-hour visit will present an opportunity for the president to play the role of comforter in chief.

After an initial briefing, the president and first lady are expected to visit "individuals impacted by Hurricane Maria."

The president is then scheduled to meet with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp for a "briefing with senior military personnel.”

Trump faced criticism over his first trip to Texas after Hurricane Harvey for not visiting local shelters, meeting with victims or touring significant damage.

The president also made headlines during that visit for praising the crowd size that formed outside a Corpus Christi firehouse, while Melania Trump stirred a debate on social media for wearing stilettos heels before she boarded a plane headed for the disaster zone.

During his second visit to Texas, Trump passed out food and other supplies as he comforted Harvey survivors, which received a warmer response.

4) Will Trump discuss the Jones Act?

After facing days of public outcry, the White House agreed last week to temporarily lift the Jones Act, allowing foreign ships to deliver emergency aid and other supplies to Puerto Rico.

The 10-day waiver from the shipping law, which only allows American-made and -operated ships to deliver cargo between U.S. ports, expires on Saturday.

A weeklong exemption was granted for Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the administration extended the waiver for one additional week.

Lawmakers are pressing the White House to extend the waiver for Puerto Rico, pointing out that the island could be rebuilding for months. The topic could come up as Trump meets with Puerto Rican officials and others on the ground who have long championed to fully repeal the law.

But getting shipments to the island is only one challenge. There has also been major hurdles getting emergency aid and other supplies distributed, which led to a pile up of containers at the ports last week. There could be reluctance to extend the waiver over concerns it could further exacerbate the problem.

5) How will Congress respond?

Lawmakers in both parties have called the White House’s response to the crisis lacking.

Members of Congress questioned why Trump took eight days to waive the Jones Act and deploy a three-star general to coordinate distribution and relief efforts on the ground.

It’s unclear whether Trump’s trip, and the administration’s stepped up response efforts, will be enough to mute the criticism — especially from Democrats.

Congress will also soon be tasked with passing a multibillion dollar disaster aid package for Puerto Rico, and many lawmakers are eager to keep the issue in the spotlight.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJuan Williams: The politics of impeachment Texas Republicans slam White House over disaster relief request Dem rep: Trump disaster aid request is 'how you let America down again' MORE (D-N.Y.) vowed Monday that the mass shooting in Las Vegas Sunday night wouldn’t distract Washington policymakers from the relief needs in the islands.

“Our friends and relatives and fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands should know that even while we mourn and process the incomprehensible events in Las Vegas, we remain laser-focused on the needs of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and will continue our advocacy for a more comprehensive, more sure-footed, and better coordinated response to their crisis,” he said. 

—Mike Lillis contributed to this report