Opinion writer

At a rally in the Florida panhandle on Wednesday night, President Trump fed the crowd lies and deceptions about disaster aid to Puerto Rico, in an effort to pit victims of different regional natural disasters against one another.

Unfortunately, the crowd appeared very receptive to Trump’s claims, laughing, cheering and applauding at precisely the moment when Trump’s lying grew most garish.

The central lie Trump told at the rally is that Puerto Rico has been given $91 billion in disaster aid. But this lie was the foundation for a more insidious deception: that Florida is not receiving its disaster aid money because Democrats want to give Puerto Rico even more on top of that $91 billion — unfairly depriving Florida of the aid it deserves.

This whole episode is an object lesson in how the entire political system — Republicans included — is obliged to accommodate Trump’s lies, kind of like a snake digesting a large animal whole, once he has settled on a falsehood that cannot be dislodged.

In such situations, the Republicans’ reluctance to confront Trump’s falsehoods and depravity head on makes everything more dysfunctional — and, perversely, works against Republicans themselves.

At the Florida rally — see the video above — Trump held up a chart showing that the $91 billion given to Puerto Rico vastly dwarfs what’s gone to other areas.

“We gave to Puerto Rico $91 billion,” Trump shouted. Then Trump continued: “What the Democrats want to do, they want to give more and more.” Then Trump told the crowd: “But you’re getting your money, one way or the other. And we’re not gonna let anybody hold it up.”

Trump’s $91 billion claim is a lie. As Glenn Kessler has documented, only about $11 billion has been spent, and even if you add in what has merely been allocated, that amounts to just over half the sum Trump claimed. The $91 billion is a guess at what might be spent over many years going forward. It’s based on hazy projections that could change.

The deeper deception

The deeper deception here is the story Trump is telling about why the money to other regions is being held up. Trump claims Democrats are holding up money to Florida because they want to pile more on top of that $91 billion. That’s just false, because Puerto Rico hasn’t gotten that sum.

But more to the point, the suggestion here is that the two regions are locked in some kind of tussle with one another — Florida can’t have its disaster money because Puerto Rico wants more on top of the huge amount they’ve unfairly gotten. Trump has been direct about this, tweeting that to give Puerto Rico money, Democrats would be “taking dollars away” from Midwestern farmers and other disaster victims.

But this fundamentally misstates the true nature of the situation. Right now, negotiations over a $17 billion disaster aid bill are snagged. But the argument is not over how much will go to places like Florida and the Midwest. Everyone agrees on that.

Rather, the argument is over how much will go to Puerto Rico, separate from what would go to the other regions, which (to oversimplify) would be funded from large pots of disaster relief money that would be doled out according to complicated funding formulas that apply across the board, and aren’t regional.

The real sticking point here is that Trump wants to give Puerto Rico less money than Democrats do, not that Democrats want to give money to Puerto Rico that would otherwise go elsewhere. And the crux of the matter is that Trump’s opposition to giving Puerto Rico what Democrats think is needed is partly grounded in a falsification of what’s already been given.

Indeed, this is creating a disagreement between Trump and Republicans. Democrats want $600 million in food stamp assistance to Puerto Rico, and additional funding on top of that for things such as rebuilding and making drinking water safe, according to a summary of the Democratic bill that the House will vote on this week.

As The Post reports, Republicans are prepared to accept the $600 million (and Trump is not), but they oppose the additional funding. Republicans are also prepared to move more toward Democrats on that additional money, but Republicans are constrained by the fact that they don’t know what Trump would accept.

Underscoring the point, The Post reports on a remarkable meeting between Vice President Pence and Senate Republicans, at which Pence urged them to find a deal. Then this happened:

Pence reiterated Trump’s views on Puerto Rico, displaying a graph aimed at bolstering Trump’s claims that Puerto Rico has already been given $91 billion, much more than many states have received for their own hurricanes and other natural disasters.

That’s a similar chart to what Trump displayed at the rally — and it echoes the same lie! So Senate Republicans are asking Pence what Trump will agree to for Puerto Rico — and learning that Trump is operating from a made-up version of what’s happening.

The Post further reports on that meeting:

Senators left the lunch uncertain how or when a deal would be reached on the long-stalled disaster aid bill. The hang-up is causing intense frustration among many GOP senators, particularly those from the South, where states were battered by hurricanes and tornadoes, and the Midwest, which has recently been ravaged by floods.

Everyone has to keep working around that $91 billion lie, because Trump won’t let go of it. But the deeper deception is the point: Trump wants Florida to blame its travails on Puerto Rico.

At least in part because of that, Republicans are hamstrung from solving the impasse in a way that’s depriving their own constituents of much needed disaster funding. The perverse irony here is that it is not Puerto Rico that is depriving them of that money. The real culprit is Trump’s massive falsification of the situation, which is rooted in a depraved and venal desire to pit disaster victims against one another.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump’s new Puerto Rico hate-tweets rest on a very ugly premise

The Post’s View: The Trump administration has turned bigotry into policy in Puerto Rico

Javier Balmaceda: Congress must step up to help Puerto Rico

Bob Kerrey: The Midwest’s floods are catastrophic. What happens once catastrophe is commonplace?