President Trump, who for months has publicly opposed disaster relief and reconstruction funding for Puerto Rico, told reporters on Thursday that he had taken care of the territory better than “any man ever.”
“Puerto Rico has been taken care of better by Donald Trump than by any living human being, and I think the people of Puerto Rico understand it,” he said.
It appeared he was responding to Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who said Thursday on CNN, “If the bully gets close, I’ll punch the bully in the mouth.” Those comments came after a heated exchange between senior White House officials and representatives from the territory, who were told they were being too demanding in their requests to meet with the president to discuss relief efforts, according to CNN.
It has been a year and a half since Hurricane Maria struck the island, and Puerto Rico is still in the process of recovering and rebuilding after the storm. Earlier this week, it was reported that Trump had privately questioned the amount spent on disaster relief in a closed door meeting with Senate Republicans. He also complained that Puerto Rico had received more than Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which struck that same year.
Trump has said Puerto Rico has received more than $90 billion in aid—an amount that would match its damages—but Congress has appropriated only $20 billion in disaster funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, only $1.5 billion of which is approved for actually spending. Other legislation to send more in funds has stalled in Congress.
In the long run, it’s true that it’s estimated the U.S. will spend more on disaster relief for Puerto Rico than it will on Texas or Florida (In the short-term, the reality is very different: Politico reported in 2018 that the Trump administration had “responded far more aggressively” in Texas and approved far more in aid early on, and a study by researchers at the University of Michigan found the federal government was far more “generous” and faster in its response to Irma and Harvey). But Hurricane Maria was also the deadliest natural disaster to hit the U.S. in more than a century—the storm and its aftermath were responsible for nearly 3,000 deaths, according to researchers from George Washington University (Trump has complained that this number was invented as a Democratic conspiracy to smear him).
And contrary to Trump’s claim Thursday that “the people of Puerto Rico, I really have a great relationship with them, and I think, when it comes time, they really do appreciate it,” a Washington Post poll from last year found that an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans thought Trump had done an inadequate job of handling the crisis. Many blamed him for a disorganized and ineffectual response to the hurricane that left the island’s infrastructure, a year later, still struggling to meet the basic needs of its three million residents.
Trump has bragged before about his response to the humanitarian crisis. He patted himself on the back for doing a “fantastic job” and called his administration’s response an “incredible, unsung success” and “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about.” He also—before tossing paper towels to a crowd of residents at a relief center like he was operating a T-shirt gun—told Puerto Rico to be “proud” for having fewer deaths than in “a real catastrophe like Katrina.” (The number of deaths from Hurricane Maria is actually considered much higher than the 1,883 deaths from Hurricane Katrina.)
Trump has also complained that Puerto Rican officials mismanaged disaster funds as part of his justification for calling for a stop to the funding, and he asserted that they were using those funds to pay the island’s debts. On Wednesday, a White House spokesman told NBC News that “the Trump administration will not put taxpayers on the hook to correct a decades-old spending crisis that has left the island with deep-rooted economic problems.”
But as NBC News pointed out, Puerto Rico would have to have any such plan approved by Congress. And FEMA itself, through a series of mistakes and scandals, was responsible for misspending much of the recovery funding. Trump, on Thursday, again deflected the blame away from his administration and toward officials on the island. “You have the mayor of San Juan that, frankly, doesn’t know what she’s doing, and the governor, they have to spend the money wisely,” Trump said. “They don’t know how to spend the money and they’re not spending it wisely.”
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus