Witcover: Trump's 'love' for Puerto Rico will be tested as territory recovers

When Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee charged the other day that the White House had become "an adult day care center" — with three former generals there babysitting President Donald Trump — he added: "Someone obviously missed their shift."

On Thursday, the president proved Mr. Corker's point by tweeting a politically toxic threat to diminish federal relief to hurricane-hammered Puerto Rico. It followed his highly publicized visit to the island the previous week during which he pledged undying love and succor. Where were the Trump watchdogs when he needed to be saved from making this boneheaded warning?

In three consecutive tweets, the president charged that the U.S. territory had been "a disaster before (the) hurricanes," with its electrical grid and infrastructure already severely damaged.

He added: "We cannot keep FEMA, the Military and the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in Puerto Rico forever!" He quoted a television reporter saying the island had "survived the hurricanes" and "now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making."

Only days earlier in San Juan, the capital, Mr. Trump was tossing paper towels to the natives as if he were shooting basketballs and pledging his love and support with an incredibly callous and mocking display.

Earlier, he had castigated the city's Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz for "poor leadership," but now he commended her as having "come back a long way" in coping with Hurricane Maria.

Still earlier, he had proclaimed: "We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe. We want them to be safe and sound and secure and we will be there every day until that happens."

Vice President Mike Pence followed with his own visit, pledging that the Trump administration would be there "every step of the way. ... We will be with you every single day until Puerto Rico is restored bigger and better than ever before," he said.

However, most of the island's 3.4 million residents, American citizens by virtue of Puerto Rico's territorial status, remain without electric power, water and other essentials of life. Mr. Trump has even sought to make lemonade out of a lemon by congratulating Puerto Rico for having sustained a lower death toll than New Orleans suffered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Mr. Trump has informed the Puerto Ricans that it will be up to Congress to determine how much the federal government will authorize as its share of the huge recovery effort required. The observation that the island was in terrible financial shape before Maria hit brought him back to his earlier theme castigating the natives for the shape they're in.

The president’s profession of deep sympathy and concern over the Puerto Ricans’ fate was already in doubt, given his long delay in visiting their stricken island, in contrast to his haste to visit Texas, Louisiana and Florida on the heels of their hurricanes.

After his tardy visit to Puerto Rico, Mr. Trump quickly pivoted to Las Vegas last week to demonstrate his grief over the mass shooting murder of civilian targets there. It did not go unnoticed or unmentioned that Mr. Trump has had real estate interests in America's gambling capital, as well as friends among the owners and operators of luxury hotels.

It remains to be seen how energetically the president will press the Republican-controlled Congress to meet the huge financial challenge of putting Puerto Rico back on its feet.

His sharp criticisms of its local public officials as poor custodians, while professing his affection for the island and its inhabitants in their hour of need, tests his compassion and sincerity. He often reassures his trusting crowds with the words "Believe me." Will the Puerto Ricans do so, as they remain in the dire aftermath throes of Maria?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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