Opinion writer

President Trump wants Midwestern farmers to believe that Puerto Rico, with the complicity of Democrats, is trying to take their disaster relief money from them — and that the island is undeserving of any further financial help.

As usual, these arguments are based on lies. But as Trump’s lies go, these are particularly instructive — and ugly.

Yet these new lies also raise a question: Why does Trump assume that Midwestern farmers will believe them?

A battle has erupted in the Senate over disaster relief, one that, if Trump has his way, will pit more recent disaster victims (Midwestern farmers dealing with flooding and Southerners dealing with tornado damage) against those on Puerto Rico who are still suffering under the aftereffects of the 2017 Hurricane Maria.

On Monday night, the Senate failed to pass a massive $13.45 billion emergency aid bill for victims of all these national disasters, amid an impasse over money for Puerto Rico. Democrats say the $600 million for food stamps for Puerto Rico in the bill is far short of what is needed, and support a bill the House passed a few months ago that contains hundreds of millions of dollars more for the island.

Trump opposes any of that additional funding. In an unusually disgusting and hateful series of tweets, he claimed that Puerto Rico has already gotten $91 billion in aid, which he said has been “wasted” by “grossly incompetent” leaders there.

Crucially, Trump also argued that Puerto Rico politicians “only take from USA” and that Democrats now “want to give them more, taking dollars away from our Farmers.”

Trump’s claim that Puerto Rico has already gotten $91 billion in aid is a lie. As Glenn Kessler demonstrates, less than $20 billion has actually been laid out or identified, and Trump’s figure is based on an internal government estimate of what might be spent under current statutes over 20 years, an estimate that is itself very fuzzy and subject to change.

The claim that Democrats want to take money from Midwestern disaster relief and give it to Puerto Rico is also a lie.

As Erica Werner and Jeff Stein explain, what actually happened is that House Democrats passed a relief bill with money for Puerto Rico and other more recent disasters months ago — well before the Midwestern flooding occurred. So Senate Democrats on Monday tried to add an amendment to that bill that would make billions in disaster money accessible to the Midwest and Southeast. Thus, the Democratic approach was to fund Midwestern, Southern and Puerto Rican aid. But Republicans opposed that amendment.

At the same time, Democrats opposed the Republican version of the disaster relief bill. This one funded Midwestern disaster relief, but by their lights insufficiently funded Puerto Rico.

The idea here is that this is supposed to create a serious political predicament for Democrats. As the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls are campaigning in Iowa, this story goes, they just voted against a bill that funds help to the beleaguered Midwest.

Multiple Republicans have made versions of this argument. And Trump did, too, bashing Democrats for killing “great relief to Farmers.”

The core dispute

But the core dispute is not over whether Midwestern disaster relief should be funded, or by how much. It’s over whether more money should be added to help Puerto Rico. And even if more were added for Puerto Rico, as Democrats want, it would not come out of funding for Midwestern relief.

And so, the underlying premise of the Republican attack is that it should be a political liability for Democrats if they want to fully fund disaster relief for everybody.

In the real world, of course, if the true nature of this dispute were understood, it probably wouldn’t be a political problem for Democrats. That’s why they are embracing their demand for funding relief for all who are afflicted. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer put it, “we help our fellow Americans when there’s a disaster, wherever the disaster strikes. We do not abandon them. Period.”

It should be noted that Puerto Rico is still in desperate straits. Recently New York Times reporters visited more than 150 homes in Puerto Rico and came away with numerous wrenching stories.

This is why Trump needs to flagrantly distort the underlying dispute, by claiming both that Puerto Rico is undeserving of the aid money that Democrats want to give it, and that in so doing, Democrats would take money from Midwesterners, both of which are based on lies.

The underlying premise of this story is that the voters Trump plainly hopes to arouse with it will be inclined to believe those lies.

The things Trump will do to please his base

We already know that much of what Trump does is geared, to an extraordinary degree, toward his base. Trump embraced a lawsuit that would unleash enormous damage throughout the health-care system in part because it would please his base. Trump pardoned abusive racist Joe Arpaio after growing convinced that it was “a way of pleasing his political base.” Trump reportedly claimed of his horrific family separations that “my people love it.” Trump revived his attacks on football players protesting racism while believing it “revs up his political base.”

We don’t know for sure if Trump believes his latest attacks on Puerto Rico will please his base. But, given that he’s telling rural voters in a region he needs in 2020 that Puerto Rican disaster sufferers do not deserve any more help and that such help would take from them, it seems like a reasonable assumption.

It is unlikely that large numbers of those voters will believe this story. But what does the fact that Trump is telling it say about his view of those voters, and of what they want to hear?