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Trump administration to place new restrictions on billions in aid for Puerto Rico amid island’s political crisis

President Trump and Gov. Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico in 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration will place new restrictions on billions of dollars in federal disaster aid for Puerto Rico, according to two senior government officials briefed on the plan, as the island struggles to recover from a weeks-long political crisis that has forced the governor to announce his resignation.

The decision will impose new safeguards on about $8.3 billion in Housing and Urban Development disaster mitigation funding to Puerto Rico, as well as about $770 million in similar funding for the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the senior officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Trump repeatedly asks his aides about Puerto Rico, officials said, creating pressure for the administration to take action. A spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said in an email Friday that the agency would strengthen internal controls to protect taxpayer funding for Puerto Rico aid.

The administration will also move forward with plans to allow states such as Florida, Texas and California to apply for the disaster mitigation funding approved by Congress, while adding new restrictions for Puerto Rico’s funding. The administration’s new plan was spurred directly by requests from the president to add additional safeguards on federal aid to Puerto Rico, aides said.

The mitigation funds pay for projects on housing and other infrastructure to prepare them for future natural disasters.

Puerto Rico governor says he will resign amid intense political pressure, sweeping protests

The move comes as Puerto Rico is grappling with one of its most severe political crises in memory, which started in July when two former officials in Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration were arrested by the FBI on corruption charges over the misuse of federal contracts.

Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Puerto Rico’s streets demanding the resignation of Rosselló, who has also been battered by the public disclosure of hundreds of private messages he sent to close associates. Rosselló has said he would step down on Friday.

The scandal has prompted calls from congressional lawmakers of both parties for additional transparency measures and stricter oversight for funding approved for Puerto Rico, with a House panel recently advancing a bipartisan plan to add new safeguards to Medicaid funding for the island.

The administration’s decision is also expected to renew accusations from congressional Democrats and island residents that Trump has withheld critical aid from Puerto Rico since it was struck by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

Trump has repeatedly sought to limit the amount of aid going to Puerto Rico, while publicly arguing “nobody could have done” what he did for the island. The president is regularly briefed about Puerto Rico by Russ Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, officials said.

Congress has approved $42 billion for the island’s recovery, but only about $14 billion of that money has been turned over to be spent as of May, according to federal data.

The $8.3 billion in disaster mitigation funding will still go to the island, officials said, but it is unclear when. The money was approved by Congress to protect parts of the island prone to natural disasters, such as by building water pumps where flash flooding occurs, said Deepak Lamba-Nieves, research director at Puerto Rico’s Center for a New Economy.

“[These] mitigation projects allow for specific areas to be protected from hazardous events,” Lamba-Nieves said. “Those projects can ensure that a vast number of families in Puerto Rico are not displaced from their homes during the next hurricane, or should any other disaster event occur.”

Puerto Rico has for months complained about the slow release of federal aid to the island after Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands of people and caused between $90 billion and $120 billion in damage, according to varying estimates.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development declined to comment.

“The crisis on the island should not stall disaster aid,” said Federico A. de Jesús, principal of FDJ Solutions, a consulting firm, and the former deputy director of the Puerto Rico governor’s office in Washington. “The money should go directly to the people — with as many safeguards and accountability processes as needed — without slowing the aid down.”

The island’s political crisis has rippled through Washington as the turmoil continues to unfold. Rosselló on Wednesday called on the island’s legislature to convene a special session to nominate and confirm former resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi as secretary of state.

Pierluisi, the governor’s 2016 rival and member of the ruling New Progressive Party, would succeed him if confirmed. Protesters rejected Justice Secretary Wanda Vasquez-Garced, who earlier this week said she was not interested in assuming the role of governor.

The island is in the middle of a 13-year recession that has spurred an exodus of its residents and bankrupted its government. About 4 percent of Puerto Rico’s population left in 2018, and the number of people living on the island has fallen by 15 percent since 2008, according to a Pew Research Center report released earlier this week.

A 2019 study by the University of Michigan found that the federal response was both faster and more generous after hurricanes struck Florida and Texas than it was for Puerto Rico. Congress also let expire emergency food stamp aid for Puerto Rico in March, causing reductions in critical federal help for more than 1 million island residents.

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.