House Democrats on Tuesday intensified their attacks on President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE over the mounting crisis in Puerto Rico, saying the administration’s “anemic” response to the devastation left by Hurricane Maria is putting storm victims at risk.
The Democrats, including members of leadership and several Puerto Rican natives, accused Trump of frittering valuable energy on the weekend’s NFL protests. Instead, they said, he should focus on accelerating and expanding the Pentagon’s relief efforts as an immediate first step toward preventing a humanitarian disaster.
“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. “It is an unprecedented storm and an unprecedented level of destruction on the islands, and it needs to be met with an unprecedented response.
“And so far … that [response] has been anemic," he said.
Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), a Puerto-Rican native who visited the island on Friday with Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, described the devastation in near-apocalyptic terms.
“I didn’t recognize what I saw. … Pure devastation,” she said. “My concern is, based on the behavior of our commander-in- chief, Donald Trump, 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.”
Over the long-term, the Democrats are urging GOP leaders on Capitol Hill to treat the devastation on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — both U.S. territories whose residents are U.S. citizens — like they would treat a similar catastrophe in one of the states.
“We have to be sure that all people living under the American flag are treated equally,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), another Puerto Rican native. “It has to be equal to Texas, to Florida, to Louisiana, to Georgia.”
Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.) on Tuesday vowed to do just that.
More immediately, however, the Democrats are calling on Trump to step up the military’s efforts to help storm victims, many of whom have no access to clean water, power, fuel and food.
“What we're saying is we need a military response. These are islands, and so the Navy needs to move in — National Guard — all those who have vessels that can move generators into the region, bring in water, bring in food. Right now, people are starving, and people are dehydrated,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y). “And it needs to happen today. We can't wait for the weekend.
“People are losing their lives.”
The Democrats are also urging Trump to appoint a general to oversee the relief and reconstruction efforts on the devastated islands.
“[After] Katrina we appointed a general to coordinate the efforts, and when he got on board, things started to happen,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip. “We need to do the same thing [now], and I would urge that to be done ASAP, meaning today or tomorrow.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is on the ground in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with efforts focused on delivering food, water and medical supplies while securing communications. The administration on Monday sent a pair of top officials to Puerto Rico to survey the damage. And on Tuesday, Trump announced that he would visit the region next week.
But in recent days, the president has made the biggest waves with his tweets about the NFL players, coaches and owners protesting Trump’s recent call to fire athletes who kneel during the national anthem to highlight racial injustice.
The White House on Monday defended the president's tweets about the NFL.
"Look, I certainly don't think that talking about the American flag is a distraction for the president of United States," said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. "Again, this should be something that every American can get behind and support and celebrate is national pride in our country, and supporting those that have fought and died to defend it from all different backgrounds."
When Trump did address the Puerto Rico crisis in several tweets Monday evening, he appeared to blame island officials, who are struggling to manage an enormous debt burden, for making the relief effort tougher.
“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” he wrote.
“It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities - and doing well.”
Asked about those tweets, Velázquez was visibly shaken up, saying she was “offended and insulted” by the president's message amid the crisis.
“I don't have time to pay attention to nonsensical tweets. If the president doesn't grasp the severity of this situation, this is going to be his legacy. It's going to be Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and all these islands legacy in terms of a humanitarian crisis for the world to see,” she said. “This is the most powerful country in the world, and this is how we treat our citizens?
“Shame on us.”