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White House is restricting lawmakers from visiting Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, aides say

Hurricane Maria's devastating blow to Puerto Rico has renewed interest in how the island's relationship with the U.S. functions. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration is restricting lawmakers in both parties from visiting storm-ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands aboard military aircraft this weekend in order to keep focused on recovery missions there, according to multiple congressional aides.

The decision comes as the Pentagon is intensifying its relief efforts on the islands as the U.S. government struggles to respond to devastation caused last week by Hurricane Maria and earlier by Hurricane Irma.

Dear Government: Send in troops to Puerto Rico. This catastrophe demands it.

Multiple attempts have been underway in recent days for members of both parties to travel to Puerto Rico aboard military aircraft. Once there, they would have met with officials with the military and Federal Emergency Management Agency responsible for ongoing missions on the ground.

At least 10 members of the House and Senate were hoping to go this Friday as part of a trip being organized by the office of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), according to two aides. Menendez represents a state with a significant Puerto Rican population. He’s in the midst of a federal corruption trial but court is not scheduled to be in session on Friday, an aide said. Another trip of senators and House lawmakers would have gone on Sunday, said the aides, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the planning.

But since Monday evening, permission to use military aircraft to make the trips has been denied by the White House and Pentagon, the aides said. One Republican aide familiar with the back-and-forth said that the administration and military officials had indicated that they need “resources for rescue and recovery, thus member travel will be restricted.”

Trump said at a news conference on Monday that he would be traveling to Puerto Rico next Tuesday and may also visit the U.S. Virgin Islands, adding that he was told that is the earliest day he could do so without hampering ongoing relief missions.

President Trump says his administration has received “tremendous reviews from government officials” in Puerto Rico for its response to Hurricane Maria. (Video: Reuters)

Trump defends response to devastation in Puerto Rico, promises visit

The White House did not return requests for comment on what the administration is telling lawmakers about potential travel to the storm zone.

Already at least two lawmakers have visited Puerto Rico — Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), who was born on the island but represents parts of Brooklyn, visited on Friday as part of an official delegation from New York state led by Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) flew aboard U.S. Coast Guard aircraft on Monday to meet with officials in San Juan and get an aerial view of some of the destruction.

“This is going to be Mr. Trump’s Katrina,” Velázquez told CNN on Tuesday.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who is Puerto Rican, represents Puerto Rican constituents in Chicago and owns a home on the island, is planning to visit the island this weekend, but he will travel there aboard private commercial aircraft, not on government jets, according to a spokesman.

Jose Barreto and Angela Garcia were cleaning up their home in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico on Sept. 22 after Hurricane Maria. (Video: The Washington Post)