Trump’s latest outburst against Puerto Rico, explained

On the heels of the Senate’s failure to pass a disaster relief bill on Monday, President Donald Trump posted a string of factually inaccurate tweets defending his position that federal government aid to the hurricane-ravaged island of Puerto Rico should be limited to food stamp subsidies, and made clear he prioritizes the needs of US citizens living in flood-ravaged Midwestern states above those of US citizens living in Puerto Rico.

In his tweets Monday evening, Trump oddly referred to the US territory as a “place,” accused Puerto Rican politicians of being “incompetent or corrupt” — he referred to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as “crazed” — and framed the question of how much disaster relief funding to provide to the island and flood-affected farmers in the Midwest as a zero-sum game, writing that “the Dems wants to give [Puerto Rico] more, taking dollars away from our Farmers and so many others. Disgraceful!”

It is not the case, however, that $91 billion has been sent to Puerto Rico in response to 2017’s Hurricane Maria and last year’s Hurricane Michael. As the Washington Post detailed, about $11 billion has been sent to the island so far — far less than the more than $120 billion the federal government has spent (and continues to spend) in response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The $91 billion figure Trump cited refers to the estimated cost of Puerto Rico’s recovery over a period spanning decades.

Trump had more to say on the topic on Tuesday morning, tweeting that “[t]he best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico is President Donald J. Trump. So many wonderful people, but with such bad Island leadership and with so much money wasted. Cannot continue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments, and so little appreciation!”

Despite what Trump would have you believe, however, there’s no reason the federal government couldn’t provide disaster relief funds to both Puerto Rico and farmers in the Midwest — in fact, this is the route Democrats want to take.

And despite Trump’s insinuations that Puerto Rican officials misappropriated disaster relief funds, a Government Accountability Office report issued last September found no evidence of fraud, but instead criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for an inadequate response. (Trump has described FEMA’s work as an “incredible, unsung success.”)

Disaster relief legislation has become a partisan issue

As Vox’s Tara Golshan explained last week, Congress wound up at a stalemate over disaster relief funding because Democrats support providing Puerto Rico with money beyond food stamp subsidies, while most Republicans, following Trump’s lead, do not:

Congress is at a stalemate over a multibillion-dollar disaster relief funding package, after President Donald Trump made it clear that he doesn’t think Puerto Rico deserves to get any more money. Trump told Senate Republicans this week, during a private luncheon, that he thought Puerto Rico was getting too much relief aid compared to other states. This comes after the president privately told aides he didn’t want “another single dollar going to the island,” the Washington Post reported.

Weeks before a “bomb cyclone” storm left much of the Midwest flooded, the Democratic-controlled House passed a disaster relief bill that not only provided funding for Puerto Rico’s food stamp program but also included funds to rebuild the island’s antiquated water systems. On the other hand, the $13.45 billion bill preferred by most Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate only provides nutritional assistance to Puerto Rico, with the disaster relief funds going to the US mainland. Both bills failed procedural votes in the Senate on Monday. In the meantime, with Congress at a stalemate, Puerto Rico has had to cut the food stamp assistance that 43 percent of the island relies on.

The New York Times reports that in the wake of Monday’s failure, Senate Democrats plan to propose a measure on Tuesday “that would allocate billions of dollars that would help Iowa and Nebraska, as well as Puerto Rico, according to a Senate Democratic aide.”

It’s unclear whether that bill can get the needed 60 votes in the Senate. But even if it does, Trump’s latest batch of angry tweets about Puerto Rico suggests he might not be willing to sign it.

Trump has a longstanding beef with Puerto Rico

Since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in September 2017, Trump has been highly critical of Puerto Rico’s political leadership. He tried to downplay the damage wrought by the hurricane — a storm that killed nearly 3,000 people on the island — with false claims like, “The electricity was broken before the storms,” and baseless insinuations that Puerto Rican leaders squandered emergency aid. He was widely criticized for callously tossing rolls of toilet paper into a crowd during a brief trip he took to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

Last September, Trump went as far as to publicly question the validity of a study that found nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the storm, saying during a radio interview:

After I left, it was 16 people that died. The 16 people was then lifted a couple of months later to 64 and that was the official number. And then all of a sudden, I read a report, many, many months later — a long time later — that they did a report that 3,000 people died. And I was like, “Wait a minute, you went from 16 people to 64. We did a great job, and then you went from 64 to 3,000. How did that happen?” And they couldn’t explain it. If you read that report, it’s not explainable.

What Trump didn’t seem to grasp is that official death tolls include not only people who died directly as a result of the storm but also indirect deaths due to factors like not being able to obtain medical care.

Those needs are ongoing. Following a trip to the island in January, Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) said Hurricane Maria was “more devastating than many of us realized.” Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA), who also made the trip, told the Washington Post, “What I saw was an island that still needs a lot of help. … A lot of the preexisting challenges here were exacerbated by the hurricane.”

Trump, however, doesn’t seem to accept that Puerto Rico is really part of the United States. As a result, he frames providing emergency aid to the island as “taking dollars away from our farmers.”

And it’s not just him — during an MSNBC interview on Tuesday morning, White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley twice mistakenly referred to the US territory as “that country.”

In reality, however, Puerto Ricans are American citizens just the same as farmers in Iowa.


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