From the comfort of his New Jersey golf resort,
Trump's Twitter assault, which began early Saturday and lasted until evening, was set off by criticism from Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who on Friday had criticized the federal response since Hurricane Maria's Sept. 20 landfall.
"Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help," Trump tweeted. He added: "They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 federal workers now on island doing a fantastic job."
The president's comments were a breathtaking and racially inflected swipe at residents who have labored for more than a week to survive without electricity, running water, food or medical supplies. Media reports have shown residents in the city and villages sweltering in line for hours with gas cans, hoping for enough fuel to run generators. Nearly every hospital in Puerto Rico lost power in the hurricane, though many have crept toward a semblance of operation. Thousands of crates of supplies have arrived in Puerto Rico, but their distribution has been slowed by destroyed roads and trucks and a shortage of drivers to deliver the goods around the island.
Media reports also have shown Puerto Ricans working together, a visible contradiction of the president's suggestion that they and their leaders had avoided helping themselves. Cruz has been seen frequently on television reports, including wading through hip-deep water to help people and embracing sobbing constituents as she pleaded for more help.
"I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying," Cruz said Friday. "We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency."
Minutes after broadcasts showed Trump telling reporters at the White House on Friday that "we have done an incredible job," Cruz asserted on camera that the world could see Puerto Ricans being treated "as animals that can be disposed of."
The controversy created an awkward backdrop for Trump's plans to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday, and perhaps the American Virgin Islands, also hit hard by the hurricane.
As has been common in other Trump disputes,
"The people of Puerto Rico are hungry, thirsty, homeless and fearful," conservative writer and radio host Erick Erickson wrote in an essay. Erickson predicted, accurately, that Trump supporters would contend that Mayor Cruz deserved Trump's treatment because she criticized the president first.
"Yay, President Trump punched a critic — a critic who is on an island trying her best to help others where most of the people now have no homes, no power, and no running water. What a man he is!" Erickson wrote.
Later in the day, Trump appeared to go out of his way to show some sympathy for the 3.5 million citizens on the island, blaming the news media and Democrats for any suggestion that the recovery effort had been faulty.
"Despite the Fake News Media in conjunction with the Dems, an amazing job is being done in Puerto Rico. Great people!" he tweeted, adding later, "To the people of Puerto Rico: Do not believe the #FakeNews!"
Trump's comments marked the second straight weekend he has set off a national furor with tweets and comments that targeted nonwhites for criticism. Since last weekend — including on Saturday — he has gone after African American athletes protesting police violence by declining to stand when the national anthem is played. He has demanded that the National Football League fire all such protesters.
His tweets Saturday — the only contact Trump had with the country Saturday as he stayed out of sight at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club — carried similar racial overtones. But instead of casting his opponents as unpatriotic, Trump implied they were lazy. The comments also were in keeping with racial remarks he made in his campaign and presidency — against immigrants, a judge of Mexican descent, the Muslim family of an Army captain killed in Iraq, a Latino beauty queen and others. In June he provoked international criticism when, in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack in London, he suggested that Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, had been politically correct rather than "smart" in countering threats.
As his critics noted, Trump has not been nearly as critical of whites, saying after the violent white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., that there were "very nice people" marching amid those carrying Nazi and confederate flags and assault rifles.
The tone of his reaction to Puerto Rico also has differed from his sympathetic response when Texas, Louisiana and Florida recently were struck by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Then the president consistently took pains to reassure affected residents, never suggesting anything but praise for their own efforts.
"Texas & Louisiana: We are w/ you today, we are w/ you tomorrow, & we will be w/ you EVERY SINGLE DAY AFTER, to restore, recover, & REBUILD!" he tweeted on Aug. 30.
The president also has suggested that Puerto Rico's deep fiscal problems will have to be considered when deciding how much to spend rebuilding it, yet he never suggested that money is an object in aiding Texas, whose governor has said it will need up to $180 billion from American taxpayers.
"Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!" Trump tweeted about Puerto Rico on Friday.
Since Hurricane Maria struck, the Trump administration has worked mightily to avoid comparisons with the faulty federal response in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas — and hobbled George W. Bush for the rest of his presidency. That event, too, featured the contrast between powerful video of suffering Americans and the self-congratulatory words of Bush complimenting his disaster response chief for a job well done. Trump, by his fight with suffering Puerto Ricans, may have hastened the comparison.
"This is his Katrina moment," Johnson said. "He is lacking and has been lacking as a moral leader."
Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said Trump displayed "a profound incapacity for empathy."
"Millions of Americans are faced with a humanitarian crisis and he's at his clubhouse using Twitter to attack local leadership on the island? Really? This is going to cause even more suffering," Schmidt said. "What the American people are seeing is staggering incompetence."
In some of his more than 20 tweets on Saturday, the president sought to suggest that any criticism of the federal response was a criticism of the first responders — much as he cast NFL players' protests as directed against service members and veterans, not police violence. He also alleged that reporters who have been in Puerto Rico documenting the hurricane's aftermath had diminished the role of U.S. rescuers.
"Because of #FakeNews my people are not getting the credit they deserve for doing a great job. As seen here, they are ALL doing a GREAT JOB!" he said in one tweet. It included a nearly 10-minute video of U.S. forces working on behalf of Puerto Ricans, and laudatory comments from Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello.
"We've been working together; we've been getting results," said Rossello, who is affiliated with Democrats. "The president and the administration have done everything that they can, that we've asked them to do."
Times staff writers Decker reported from Washington and Lee from Los Angeles.
Times staff writer Jackie Calmes contributed to this report from Washington.