WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump served notice Thursday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Declaring the U.S. territory’s electrical grid and infrastructure to have been a “disaster before hurricanes,” Trump wrote Thursday that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate to the island for its recovery efforts and that recovery workers will not stay “forever.”

Three weeks since Maria made landfall, much of Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million people, remains without power. Residents struggle to find clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine and commerce is slow with many businesses closed.

Trump on Thursday sought to shame the territory for its own plight. He tweeted, “Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.” And he quoted Sharyl Attkisson, a television journalist, as saying, “Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.”

 

Trump has been roundly criticized for his leadership in coming to Puerto Rico’s aid. Trump, in response, has tried to portray the island as in full recovery mode, even as it suffers from enduring health, power and water problems. During a visit last week, he tossed rolls of paper towels at local residents as if they were basketballs, drawing scorn from local leaders, and noted that the death toll was lower than the “real catastrophe” of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

During a whirlwind visit to Puerto Rico on Oct. 3, President Trump told one gathering at a church that they no longer needed flashlights and tossed rolls of paper towels into the crowd as if they were basketballs. He took a helicopter tour, visited a ship, posed for selfies – and then left an hour earlier than scheduled. Shutterstock photo

In a visit to the island last week, Vice President Mike Pence vowed that the administration will be with Puerto Rico “every step of the way.”

“I say to all of you gathered here today to the people of Puerto Rico: We are with you, we stand with you, and we will be with you every single day until Puerto Rico is restored bigger and better than ever before,” he said.

Trump himself made a similar promise, saying in a Sept. 29 speech, “We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe.” He added, “These are great people. We want them to be safe and sound and secure. And we will be there every day until that happens.”

Roberto Morales Santos, 70, looks out from his hurricane-damaged home in the municipality of Barranquitas outside San Juan, on Wednesday. Reuters/Shannon Stapleton