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President Donald Trump just set a new standard in his search for flattery.
A few months ago, Trump held a Cabinet meeting like none in modern memory. He invited a tableful of his appointees to describe what then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus called "the blessing to serve your agenda." With the TV cameras rolling, Trump went around the room, giving each Cabinet member a chance to praise the new administration's work.
Today, he staged a replay – but this time with hurricane victims. The president supplied much of the flattery himself.
It started at the White House as Trump prepared to depart for Puerto Rico to glimpse the devastation from Hurricane Maria. He told reporters that the mayor of San Juan, who had begged Washington for more help while blasting one federal official for calling relief efforts "a good news story," had "come back a long way" since then.
"I think it's now acknowledged what a great job we've done," Trump declared, noting praise for his administration's response to other storms. "In Texas and in Florida, we get an A+, and I'll tell you what: I think we've done just as good in Puerto Rico."
Chiding Puerto Ricans again, as he had over the weekend, the president added, "On a local level, they have to give us more help." But he thanked Puerto Rico's governor because "he has said we've done an incredible job."
After landing in the storm-ravaged American territory, Trump struck the same tone. Addressing a roomful of administration and Puerto Rican officials, he emphasized the successes of his team rather than the suffering on an island desperate to restore its electric power, drinking water and transportation system.
He serially lauded officials in his administration including Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Brock Long, repeating the "A+" evaluation from earlier in the day.
He praised the "fantastic general" he placed atop the relief effort, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, as someone who plays "no games."
He thanked Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in Congress, Jenniffer Gonzales Colon, for "saying such nice things" about the administration's response. He repeated his appreciation for Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, as someone who "did not play politics."
The evidence? "He was giving us the highest grades," the president said.
Unwilling to stop there, Trump celebrated the comparison between lives lost to Maria and those lost to "a real catastrophe" — Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The federal response to that earlier storm prompted fierce criticism of President George W. Bush.
"What's your death count?" Trump asked Rosselló. Told the answer was 16, the president responded: "16 people versus in the thousands. You can be … very proud of what's taken place."
Last week, Trump and Republican leaders in Congress outlined their tax-cut plan, which the Tax Policy Center concluded will expand the federal budget deficit while delivering 80 percent of its benefits to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans by 2027. Even so, the president couldn't resist teasing Puerto Rico for creating fiscal problems with its need for hurricane relief.
"I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, you've thrown our budget a little out of whack, " he said. "We've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico."
He concluded on a note of forgiveness: "And that's fine. We're saving a lot of lives."
Soon Trump went outside to chat with ordinary Puerto Ricans affected by the storm. He opened an initial conversation by suggesting an image.
"Let's get a picture first," the president said. "Let's get a beauty."