White House faces messaging battle on Puerto Rico

White House faces messaging battle on Puerto Rico
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White House officials on Sunday were united in blaming factors beyond their control for Puerto Rico's struggle to recover from hurricane damage. 

The White House is contending with officials on the island who are publicly begging for more help as the majority of the 3.4 million residents are still without basic necessities such as food, water and power.

The mayor of San Juan has become the face of those in Puerto Rico who charge that enough is not being done to address an ongoing dire situation and ended up in a very public messaging war with President Trump, who this weekend has been pushing back against criticism that his administration isn't doing enough to respond to the devastation.


But Trump's defenders on Sunday said everything possible is being done to mitigate the disaster, which a White House memo obtained by Axios on Sunday noted was caused by the hurricane — not by the response to it.

"We have a strong ground game in place on the island with military leadership. [Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo] Rossello should continue to get more public messaging support from us," White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert wrote in the memo.

White House officials insisted they are focused and hands-on for the island's recovery.

“We’ve spent the entire weekend, as we have last weekend, working on Puerto Rico, making sure we’re out saving lives, sustaining lives. And making sure everyone in Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, is taken care of. The United States has gone through extraordinary efforts to delivery goods to the islands," Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, said on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”

Others implied the media is focused on the negative rather than the positive parts of the hurricane relief story.

White House budget chief Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' MORE said that Trump isn't happy with how the media is covering the federal response in Puerto Rico.

Mulvaney said the media has covered Puerto Rico's residents, many of whom do not have food or water, but not the administration's response.

“What you’ve not shown, however, is the federal effort that we’ve got in place down there,” Mulvaney said on CNN's "State of the Union." Trump tweeted that those in Puerto Rico should not “believe the #fakenews.”

Mayors in Puerto Rico need to be a part of the relief effort, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said, responding to criticism from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who he said was "spout[ing] off."

According to a White House official on Saturday, Cruz has not visited FEMA response headquarters on the island, although she's been making pleas on air for help.

"If mayors decided not to be apart of that [relief effort] then the response is fragmented," Long said on "Fox News Sunday." 

"What I don't have patience for is the fact that what we're trying to do and we have successfully done is we've established a joint field office in San Juan," Long said. "And you should go there, you should go see that operation, where we're having daily conversations with all of the mayors, we're working with the government and his leadership to create unified objectives."

Long urged people to look at what is being done, not what isn't.

"We can choose to look at what the mayor spouts off or what other people spout off," he said. "Or we can also choose to see what's actually being done."

His defense comes after Trump on Saturday took to Twitter to tout his administration's response and lashed out at Cruz.

Trump said in a tweet that the mayor had shown "such poor leadership."

Cruz defended herself for turning to the media to ask for help and said she would be happy to talk to Trump directly about her city's needs.

"Any dialogue that goes on just has to be able to produce results," Cruz said on ABC's "This Week." "And all I did last week, or even this week, was ask for help."

Cruz was among several officials who have been critical of the administration's response to the Puerto Rico crisis.

Democrats, in turn, have criticized Trump for spending the weekend at his golf club, where the president has scheduled several calls with officials managing the disaster response. Despite those meetings on his schedule, critics say Trump shouldn't be spending his time criticizing people who are struggling on the beleaguered island.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (D-N.Y.) on Sunday encouraged Trump to put an end to the name-calling and instead get to work.

"The president, instead of tweeting against the mayor of San Juan, who's watching her people die and just made a plea for help, [should] roll up his sleeves and get to work here," Schumer said on CBS's "Face The Nation."

Schumer also said Trump, who is planning to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday, should have gone to the island earlier.

"The president going makes a huge difference," he said.

He dismissed some of the acknowledged reasons for the slowness in the aid response — including long-standing shipping restrictions, infrastructure problems, the power grid being down and the distance between the island and the mainland.

"Logistics didn't get in the way in the past," he argued.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersStudy: Early unemployment cutoff would cost 16M people 0B Machine Gun Kelly reveals how Bernie Sanders aided him in his relationship with Megan Fox Overnight Health Care: CDC approves Pfizer vaccine for adolescents aged 12-15 | House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill | Panel blasts COVID-19 response MORE (I-Vt.) also spoke out against Trump's rhetoric about Puerto Rico.

“It is unspeakable, and I don’t know what world Trump is living in. People in Puerto Rico are suffering one of the worst disasters in the history of that island,” Sanders said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Sanders said people "have a right to be suspect" that race may have been a factor in how Trump has handled the U.S. territory.

“Yeah, I think we have a right to be suspect that he is treating the people of Puerto Rico a different way than he has treated the people of Texas or Florida,” he said, referring to recent hurricane relief efforts in those states.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) was also critical of the head of his own party, calling Trump's tweets attacking the mayor of San Juan inappropriate.

"It's not appropriate. I mean, when people are in the middle of a disaster, you don't start trying to criticize them," Kasich told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union."

"It's just not the way I think it ought to be handled. It's not the way we handle disasters here," he continued.

"Everything has to be directed that way. These people, their lives are in danger," he said.

On Sunday, Trump tweeted that "we have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico," adding that people are "now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great military."