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Trump focuses on optics in Puerto Rico visit

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PUERTO RICO —  President Donald Trump squarely focused on one task as he landed in Puerto Rico: portraying his administration’s response to the devastation on the still-recovering island as a tremendous success.

During an awkward roundtable with federal and local officials, he touted the federal response and offered praise for those who have been most complimentary to his administration, even as many residents on the island continued to lack access to basic services and criticized the federal response.

The President also appeared to jokingly blame the island and its 3.5 million residents for throwing the federal budget “a little out of whack.”

“I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” Trump said with a grin. “Because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico and that’s fine, we’ve saved a lot of lives.”

But the bulk of Trump’s remarks on Tuesday focused on praising his administration’s response to the destructive hurricane, even as more than half of residents still lack access to potable water and as nearly all of the island remains without power.

He called out top officials in his administration for praise before the cameras. He told officials they should be “very proud” that only 16 people died in the hurricane — comparing the death toll to the more than a thousand who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

And even as he praised some of the island’s local officials, he focused squarely on the positive comments those officials have made about him and his administration’s response.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselo was called out for praise for “appreciating what we did.” The island’s representative in Congress, Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon, was thanked for saying “such nice things” — and asked to repeat her praise on Tuesday.

“Right from the beginning this governor did not play politics,” Trump said. “He was saying it how it was and he was giving us the highest ratings.”

One official Trump did not call out for praise was the mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, whom Trump criticized on Twitter over the weekend after she expressed frustration with the pace of the federal response.

As he thanked Gonzalez-Colon, Trump asked her to “say a little something about what you said about us today,” before quickly catching himself and adding: “And it’s not about me, it’s about all of these incredible people from the military to FEMA to the first responders, I’ve never seen anyone work so hard.”

Trump did get the opportunity to see some of the damage Hurricane Maria wrought firsthand and met with some of the storm’s survivors.

After his roundtable meeting with federal and local officials, Trump headed to Guaynabo, Puerto Rico — just outside the capital of San Juan — where he walked from home to home, greeting residents in one of the more affluent neighborhoods where homes suffered no major damage, but piles of debris and downed trees littered the streets.

“We’re going to help you out,” Trump pledged to some of the residents.

Next, Trump arrived at Calvary Chapel, where he held up, handed out and tossed supplies while shaking hands with local residents — everything from a can of tinned chicken breast and a pack of batteries to a flashlight.

“There’s a lot of love in this room,” Trump said before he moved to handing out a pile of rice bags.

Then, offering his best basketball shot, the President began softly shooting rolls of paper towels into the crowd.

Trump’s trip to Puerto Rico came as frustration on the island mounted with the federal response to the storm as the island remained without power. Residents continue to struggle to get access to food and fuel nearly two weeks after the storm hit.

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