Fact-checking Donald Trump's tweets about Puerto Rico
As Washington mobilized more people and supplies to ease the suffering in Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump lambasted his critics on Twitter. Trump himself described the damage from Hurricane Maria as devastating, but when frustrations on the ground bubbled up, he was in no mood for second-guessing.
He called out CNN and NBC as purveyors of fake news. He scolded the mayor of San Juan and other cities for failing to help themselves. And he highlighted the thousands of federal workers deployed to get food, water, fuel and power to millions of Puerto Ricans.
The situation in Puerto Rico is fluid and some details are missing. Rather than a hard and fast fact-check, we’ll compare Trump’s tweets to the information we do have.
"Fake News CNN and NBC are going out of their way to disparage our great First Responders as a way to "get Trump." Not fair to FR or effort!."
Trump sent this tweet Sept. 30. We asked the White House what stories the president had in mind. They had no comment so we reviewed the CNN and NBC coverage in the days before Trump’s tweet.
Both news organizations mainly reported the struggles on the ground in Puerto Rico, but the day before his tweet, both had stories that cast his administration in a bad light.
There’s no dispute that life right now is desperately hard on the American territory. At most, 5 percent of the population has electricity. Hospitals are running on generators. Food supplies are limited.
On Sept. 27, CNN reported that over 10,000 containers of supplies, including food, water and medicine, were sitting on the docks in San Juan. Damaged roads, a shortage of diesel fuel, and a shortage of drivers were blocking the distribution of goods. Over the next two days, several other news organizations reported the same problem.
Crowley Maritime posted a press release on Sept. 25 saying, "The key to providing relief to citizens impacted by Hurricane Maria will be expediting local transportation and distribution of the cargo." It followed up on Sept. 29 with a statement that Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, shipments were moving through, but it still had 4,100 commercial loads of food, clothing and building supplies awaiting distribution.
Crowley Maritime also said a barge was on its way with 100 fuel delivery trucks and 275,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
Both CNN and NBC had stories on the struggles of average Puerto Ricans. NBC reported on Sept. 28 that half of the population faced a lack of drinking water. The latest numbers from the government of Puerto Rico show water is in short supply. In several zones where water is available, it only flows every other day. In the hardest-hit western region, only 19 percent of the population has access to water.
In these stories and others, we found that CNN and NBC accurately reflected the hardships faced by Puerto Ricans. We found no evidence of fabricated reports or exaggerations.
But the news organizations also had stories that were critical of the administration’s response. The day before Trump’s tweet, CNN wrote about the blowback on a comment from acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke that the recovery effort was a "good news story." CNN said the White House "feels the heat."
NBC noted that for all the criticism of the government’s response to Katrina in 2005, it moved faster than it has so far in Puerto Rico. Congress approved money more quickly and sent more people and relief supplies. While Washington did cut checks faster for Katrina, simple comparisons can gloss over important distinctions.
Puerto Rico has about 3.4 million people, fewer than the estimated 5.8 million people who were in the states that Katrina affected. Plus, it is simply easier to get people and materials to any place on the mainland than it is to an island.
As he often does, Trump applied the fake news tag liberally. But there is no indication that the reporting was inaccurate.
"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’s claim here is basically unsupported. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz got on Trump’s bad side when she criticized Washington’s response and said, "If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency."
Trump shot back with a tweet aimed at Cruz. Leadership in a crisis can be hard to judge, but we can look at whether the mayor of San Juan and others were unable to get their workers to help.
FEMA administrator Brock Long had some good things to say about Puerto Ricans in general, but was less complimentary about Mayor Cruz.
"The Puerto Ricans are pulling their weight," Long said on This Week on ABC News Oct. 1. "I mean, I think they're doing what they can."
But Long suggested that Cruz had not spent as much time as she should have with FEMA staff.
"The problem is, if you're not connected into that joint field office, then you don't understand commanders' intent," Long said. "You don't understand the successes of what's been done versus what needs to be done where the gaps are."
Reporting on the ground paints a different picture of Cruz. Washington Post reporters described a woman out in the streets connecting with residents. The city delivered tanks of water to neighborhoods. With the electric grid in shambles, city workers, including Cruz, handed out solar-powered lanterns.
Coordination between the San Juan mayor’s office and FEMA might have fallen short, but that is not the only way to measure that mayor or any other mayor’s effort to help provide relief.
Trump is on thin ice with this claim.
"10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job."
Trump tweeted this affirmation of the federal effort on Sept. 30. The figure has been widely used by the administration, and we wanted to learn more.
The FEMA press office told us that there are 10,100 federal workers on Puerto Rico, but could not provide a breakdown by agency.
Our searches found that the number might be close, although you need to count soldiers as federal workers, and it’s not clear that all those people have actually arrived.
Before the storm hit on Sept. 20, there were National Guardsmen already in place on Puerto Rico. A week later, the Pentagon said there were about 5,000 service members and National Guardsmen directly working on the relief effort. That included over 1,000 on two ships off the island’s coast.
The military response has been growing, so it’s reasonable to think the number would be larger by the time Trump sent his tweet.
FEMA reports that it has 800 staff on the ground in the territory. The Health and Human Services Department said it has "more than 200 HHS medical professionals and public health experts poised to travel to Puerto Rico." Various other agencies from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Department of the Interior have deployed staff in smaller numbers.
At the end of the day, no federal department could give us definitive figures, which makes this claim soft around the edges. But FEMA stands by its number and until we know more, we can say it’s in the ballpark.