“Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico,” President Trump said during his visit to the hurricane-devastated island on Tuesday, “but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack, because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico.” Sensing that his attempt at humor had gone awry, he then added, “And that’s fine.”
The comment would probably be considered ill-advised by any other president in response to any other natural disaster. For Trump, as a response to this disaster, it’s almost amazing.
Trump is in Puerto Rico as part of an effort to clean up damage from a disaster. Hurricane Maria, sure. But Trump is also there to recover from his personal political disaster stemming from widespread perceptions that his administration’s handling of the response to the storm was inadequate or slow. When questions first arose about that response, Trump’s initial comments were largely defensive.
“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” he tweeted last month. “It’s old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.” He then began to criticize the mayor of San Juan, after she publicly criticized the federal government’s response to the disaster. Tacitly acknowledging that things weren’t going that well, he also repeatedly pointed out that Puerto Rico was harder to support than Texas or Florida, given that there was an ocean between the mainland and the island.
Trump’s unusual reaction to providing aid to Puerto Rico was interpreted in a variety of ways, particularly when contrasted with his comments about Texas and Florida. There’s the idea that American territories can often be afterthoughts in politics. Others noted that Puerto Rico has no electoral votes to offer in 2020. The disaster also occurred at a moment when Trump’s attitudes on race were under heightened scrutiny, prompting some comparisons of the demographics of those states with that of the island.
His comment about the budget, while obviously meant as a joke, was, therefore, predictably interpreted uncharitably.
For one thing, it makes no sense. One congressional aide estimated that the federal government would eventually have to spend as much as $30 billion over the long term to help Puerto Rico recover. Over the short term, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan pledged $6.7 billion.
This is not a lot of money, in comparison with the federal budget. This year, the government will outlay $4 trillion, which means that what’s being spent in Puerto Rico over the short term is the equivalent of someone who makes $50,000 a year spending $84.
For another, the comments come as the White House is trying to make the case for why government revenue should be slashed — in the form of doing things like dropping the corporate tax rate and eliminating the estate tax. That latter tax generated $19.3 billion in 2014. Eliminating it, in other words, would “throw the budget out of whack” three times as badly as the money spent to assist Puerto Rico over the short term.
For a third, he also spent time during his remarks praising each branch of the military — even bragging about how much the government is spending on a new fighter aircraft.
“An amazing job,” he said of the Air Force’s aid in Puerto Rico and on the Gulf Coast. “So amazing, that we’re ordering hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new airplanes for the Air Force, especially the F-35.” He then boasted about how hard to detect the plane was. “That’s an expensive plane, that you can’t see,” he said. “As you probably heard, we cut the price very substantially. Something that other administrations would never have done, that I can tell you.”
The most recent estimate is that the F-35 program will cost the government $406.5 billion — 13 times what it will cost to rebuild Puerto Rico.