The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s plan to take money from Puerto Rico to build the wall could come back to bite him

Homes and infrastructure in ruins outside the city of Caguas, Puerto Rico, in October 2017. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump’s handling of Hurricane Maria has been criticized by nearly everyone, except Trump himself, who said his team “did a fantastic job.”

Critics say the administration failed to respond quickly and robustly to the storm, which battered infrastructure across Puerto Rico. Hospitals could not function. Clean water and food were hard to come by. A year later, power is still spotty. An estimated 3,000 Puerto Ricans died during the disaster and its aftermath, according to a George Washington University report.

Now, Trump is considering weakening the administration’s response even further by using disaster-relief funds for Puerto Rico to fund his border wall.

The Associated Press reported that the White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to examine how much of the $13.9 billion in emergency funds set aside for Puerto Rico and other storm-damaged areas could be used to build a border wall. The article said:

Nearly $14 billion in emergency disaster relief funds have been allocated but not yet obligated through contracts for a variety of projects in states including California, Florida and Texas and in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico that have been ravaged by recent hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters, according to the aide familiar with the matter.
The money funds a variety of projects, mostly flood control to prevent future disasters.

While progress has been made in helping Puerto Rico recover, experts and residents say that projects are nowhere near completion. Diverting funds, they argue, suggests a lack of commitment from the administration to follow through on the already limited efforts to redevelop the island.

Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), who was born in Puerto Rico, denounced the proposal as unacceptable. She said in a statement:

"It would be beyond appalling for the President to take money from places like Puerto Rico that have suffered enormous catastrophes, costing thousands of American citizens lives, in order to pay for Donald Trump’s foolish, offensive and hateful wall. Siphoning funding from real disasters to pay for a crisis manufactured by the President is wholly unacceptable and the American people won’t fall for it. My Democratic colleagues in Congress and I will fight such a move with every ounce of energy we have.”

Ricardo Rosselló, governor of Puerto Rico, took to Twitter to denounce the idea and called on Trump to clarify his plans. He tweeted:

“No wall should be funded on the pain and suffering of US citizens who have endured tragedy and loss through a natural disaster. This include those citizens that live in CA, TX, PR, VI and other jurisdictions. Today it’s us, tomorrow it could be you. No justification should be considered to reclassify the money that US citizens will use to rebuild their communities. If anything, the conversation should be how we get more resources to rebuild those impacted areas faster.”

Even before this proposed plan made the rounds, Puerto Ricans had an overwhelmingly negative view of the president’s handling of relief projects. A September Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 8 in 10 Puerto Rico residents gave Trump negative reviews for his response to the hurricane, with about half giving him the lowest grade: “poor.”

Trump’s handling of Puerto Rico is one part of the reason he gets such low approval ratings (only 25 percent, according to Gallup) from American Hispanics. The president defends his politics by saying he’s focusing on winning the support of his base — a largely white, older and more conservative group of Americans. But most voters are not part of Trump’s base, as the midterm elections proved. Unless Trump makes changes in how he responds to issues of importance to Hispanic voters, he stands to lose the support of even more Hispanics in 2020.