WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump supports congressional efforts to provide disaster funds to a variety of states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Kansas — but not for Puerto Rico, he told senators this week, continuing a pattern of hostility toward the US territory as it continues to recover from two hurricanes.
On Tuesday, the president told Republican senators at their weekly lunch that he thought Puerto Rico had already received a disproportionate amount of disaster relief, and that it had not spent the money on appropriate projects, members said. The remarks came a day after the Washington Post reported that Trump told advisers he didn’t want “another single dollar going to the island” in a meeting last month.
Trump brought charts with him to Tuesday’s lunch, several senators who were present confirmed, meant to show that Puerto Rico had received far more funding than other disaster-hit areas and that the island had spent the funds irresponsibly. It’s not clear what the president’s source was for those numbers, but several investigations have found that aid for Puerto Rico in terms of funding, boots on the ground, and supplies lagged severely behind what was provided to Texas and Florida in the immediate aftermath of their respective storms in 2017. That’s in addition to an internal report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency itself, which found that the response to the crisis in Puerto Rico was inadequate.
Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, one of the authors of a February letter to House and Senate leaders calling for more Puerto Rico relief funding, said Trump’s attitude toward Puerto Rico amounts to “diminishing a tragedy of historic proportions.”
“Denying the funds they need to recover while requesting the ‘A+ treatment’ for other states is insulting to Puerto Ricans and for Latinos in general to say the least,” Menendez told BuzzFeed News.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair Joaquin Castro went further in a statement Wednesday. “President Trump’s statements this week combined with his administration’s actions betray a horrifying truth: this President does not value the lives of American citizens in Puerto Rico and worse yet is actively undermining efforts to help the island’s recovery,” Castro said. “This appalling behavior is unbecoming of the President’s office and is one of the greatest failures of his presidency.”
At least one Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio, said the president’s comments did not seem to consider the scale of damage in Puerto Rico after hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“He thinks Puerto Rico got more money than all the states and territories. Obviously there’s some detail about why that’s the case that’s not being taken into account,” he said.
Trump’s opposition to disaster relief for the island is just his latest dig at the territory. Weeks after Hurricane Maria left the island’s infrastructure torn to shreds, he visited and threw paper towels at a crowd in a city where most residents did not have power or water for months. During the same visit, he said Maria was not a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina because the official death toll at the time was lower. Later, when local authorities admitted that more than 3,000 people died as a result of the storm, Trump said the deaths never happened and that the death toll was “done by the Democrats to make me look as bad as possible.”
In January, the White House also called Puerto Rico’s request for $600 million for food stamps “excessive and unnecessary.”
On Tuesday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Inspector General’s Office confirmed that it is investigating whether the president directly interfered to stop funds from going to Puerto Rico from HUD, after the Washington Post reported that a senior HUD official resigned over the issue in December.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló pushed back on the president’s comments Tuesday night.
“I can only assume that Trump is receiving misleading information from his own staff. I have now made several requests to meet with the President to discuss Puerto Rico’s recovery and reconstruction, but up to this day we haven’t received a confirmation or a date, even though Trump told me we would meet after his visit to Vietnam earlier this year,” Rosselló said in a statement. “I invite the President to stop listening to ignorant and completely wrong advice.
“People from all over the nation, and the world, have witnessed the inequalities Americans face on the island. The federal response and its treatment during these past months in the aftermath of Hurricane María is clear evidence of our second-class citizenship,” he said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who cosigned the letter with Menendez, said that he thought the president’s criticisms of Puerto Rico “are bizarre beyond belief. Puerto Rico is struggling, it is still recovering and the federal government is shortchanging them.”
Describing Trump’s comments to Republicans on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “He said Texas got like $28 billion, Florida got $9 and that Puerto Rico got some huge amount of money, and at a point there comes the question, are we spending the money wisely?”
Graham added that he personally is not opposed to more disaster funding for Puerto Rico, but said, “I just want to make sure we’re not throwing money into the system without any sense of responsibility.”
Senate Republicans plan to vote this week on a $13.4 billion bill that includes $600 million in emergency funding for Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program, which has already had to drastically cut food stamp checks for 1.3 million Puerto Ricans as initial disaster relief funds for food stamps have run out.
Even if the bill passes the Senate, it would need to be reconciled with a House bill that included more funding for Puerto Rico, and ultimately the funding would rely on a signature from the president, who has now repeatedly said he doesn’t believe Puerto Rico should get more disaster relief money.
The disaster relief bill Republicans are eager to pass also includes funding for North and South Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas, and other parts of the country hit by natural disasters last year.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he hopes the bill passes and said it is likely to go to conference, where the House and Senate will iron out their differences. He said he expected to continue talking with Democrats about the bill.
“[The president] raised the issue before that they don’t spend their money wisely and they have a history of that as far as oversight,” Shelby said. “The Democrats want to give [Puerto Rico] more money. Some of us want to give them what they need but make sure they spend it wisely, so it’s not just an open spigot,” Shelby said.
One of the senators involved in crafting the Republican proposal, Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, was among several Republicans who said Tuesday that they didn’t think the president complaining about disaster funding for Puerto Rico meant that he wouldn’t support the bill.
“I’ve heard no indication that he’s not going to be supportive of it,” said Sen. Tim Scott, who represents South Carolina, one of the states slammed by Hurricane Florence last year.
Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have criticized the bill because it lacks additional recovery funding for Puerto Rico outside of food stamps.
“The Republicans and the White House are refusing to make several minor changes to the disaster bill under consideration today, changes that will help Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.
“Puerto Rico was devastated, devastated, by Hurricane Maria a year and a half ago, devastation that we haven’t probably seen in any other part of our country.”
Senate Democrats on Wednesday proposed three options to Republicans to get the legislation passed in both chambers, according to an aide — to pass the House bill, to pass a shell bill on the understanding that it will go to conference for negotiations, or to add amendments to the Republican measure.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy earlier this month offered a proposal that would have included some of the measures in the House bill, a total package of $14.2 billion, including extra funding for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in addition to funding for North and South Carolina, Georgia, and other states hit by disasters last year.
“You would have eliminated the need for a conference and would have gotten assistance to the people who need it sooner rather than later,” Leahy said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
“The president is willing to endanger the entire disaster package for all of the United States because he wants to pick winners and losers,” Leahy said.
The House bill included $15.5 million in emergency assistance for the electrical grids in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and Houston. Water system repairs and treatment in Puerto Rico, as well as an increase in the cost federal agencies can take on for debris removal and temporary fixes to infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, were also included. And the bill would allow FEMA to waive a requirement that infrastructure can only be built back to the condition it was in before a natural disaster — in Puerto Rico’s case, the electrical grid was already in such bad shape that it stood no chance of enduring a hurricane.
Alternatively, the amendments Leahy is proposing would add $431 million for debris removal and temporary emergency fixes to infrastructure in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Georgia, and other states. It would also include a mandate for HUD to release all $20 billion worth of funding that it has allocated but not released to Puerto Rico, and $250 million for clean water projects.
Rubio said the urgency of the food stamp funding is the most pressing issue and that conversations with the president will have to continue.
“We’ll continue engaging with the White House but right now at least the priority is to make sure that in this disaster relief the SNAP program money is there, because that’s expired and it’s creating a real problem,” he said.
Blumenthal said that although Democrats largely oppose the Senate bill because it doesn’t provide additional money for disaster recovery, given the dire need for food stamp funding, he will be “looking at [the disaster relief bill] carefully.”
“It’s a question of whether the perfect is the enemy of the good. I don’t know whether this is good enough, I’m going to be looking at it carefully,” he said.