WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump praised Puerto Rico's people on Friday, calling them "wonderful" and having an "unmatched spirit" as the U.S. territory struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria and he weathers criticism for his handling of the disaster.


But the compliment was backhanded as Trump alluded again to Puerto Rico's parlous economic state even before the damage inflicted by last month's hurricanes Irma and Maria.


"The wonderful people of Puerto Rico, with their unmatched spirit, know how bad things were before the [hurricanes]," Trump said on Twitter. "I will always be with them!"


On Thursday, Trump tweeted criticisms of Puerto Rico's economic problems, saying power and other infrastructure were a "disaster" before the hurricanes and adding that Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal relief personnel could not be on the island "forever."


Irma grazed Puerto Rico and Maria hit directly as the most powerful storm to lash the island in 90 years, devastating the power grid and other infrastructure. Puerto Rico, which owes $72 billion to creditors, had already been grappling with a bankruptcy crisis. The island has spent most of the last decade in recession and its poverty rate is over 40 percent.

Trump has faced criticism for his administration's slow response, seen by critics as less agile than it would have been for a similarly battered region of the U.S. mainland, and for bringing up the cost of relief efforts when he visited the island earlier this month.

Despite the Republican president's suggestion this week that Washington will not help indefinitely, U.S. lawmakers and other administration officials have pledged support.

On Thursday, the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives approved $36.5 billion in emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by recent disasters. Approval from the Senate, also controlled by Republicans, is expected in coming weeks.

House Speaker Paul Ryan was scheduled to lead a bipartisan congressional delegation to Puerto Rico on Friday.

The mayor of the island's capital, San Juan, has strongly denounced what she has called an inadequate federal response to Maria, and has been a steady critic of the president. Trump has tweeted back that she has "poor leadership ability."

"I think it's conduct unbecoming of a leader of the free world," Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said on NBC on Friday, referring to Trump's use of Twitter.

"The president uses Twitter in order to disperse hate, so whomever deletes that account should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize," she said.

(Reporting by Justin Mitchell, Susan Heavey and Makini Brice; Editing by Frances Kerry)