The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump seems to inflate the price tag for Puerto Rico’s recovery to deny funding Puerto Rico’s recovery

President Trump and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello participate in a meeting in the Oval Office in 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump is frustrated by two numbers that emerged after Hurricane Maria laid waste to Puerto Rico in 2017.

The first is 2,975, the number of people estimated to have died as a result of the storm, according to analysis conducted by George Washington University. This number, Trump has insisted, is far higher than reality. When he visited the island shortly after the storm struck, the death toll was only 16 — though that number had more than doubled by the time Air Force One began heading back to the mainland. As weeks passed and recovery efforts continued, the toll increased dramatically.

The other number is $91 billion, the amount of aid that Trump reportedly told Republican senators Tuesday that the island was receiving. This hefty figure was a source of frustration for Trump, who wondered why Puerto Rico was getting so much more than other affected states.

But unlike the estimated death toll, which is rooted in statistical analysis of the island’s mortality patterns, Trump’s $91 billion appears to be a steep inflation of what’s actually been appropriated.

It’s an awfully specific figure, $91 billion. It does bear some relation to the storm: Hurricane Maria was estimated to have done $91 billion in damage, most of it in Puerto Rico. The island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló (PNP of Puerto Rico), asked for $94.4 billion a few months after the storm made landfall, an amount that increased to $139 billion last summer. But those are estimates of what would be needed for a full recovery, not what the island has actually received. By contrast, Texas and Florida asked for $61 billion and $27 billion in late 2017 for the storms that struck those states — doing far less damage than Puerto Rico experienced.

What’s been spent there so far? The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has spent $5 billion on debris removal, road repairs and power restoration. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been approved to spend almost $10 billion in disaster relief funds, $1.5 billion last summer and $8.2 billion more approved last month. As The Post’s team notes, it’s murky — but those figures do not add up to anything close to $91 billion. Last October, the director of the federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s spending estimated an eventual investment of $82 billion, which is a bit closer to the mark but which hasn’t yet been received.

“It’s unclear where Trump got the figure for Puerto Rico aid,” The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim, Josh Dawsey and Paul Kane reported. “One congressional official said it is difficult to quantify exactly how much aid the island has received to recover from Maria because of the way the money is disbursed.”

Trump’s antipathy to spending money on Puerto Rico has been evident since shortly after the storm hit.

Less than a week after Maria made landfall, Trump was quick to note that the island “was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt” before the storm hit and that it had “billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.” That debt certainly existed, but Trump has repeatedly suggested relief aid sent to the island would be abused to pay it down.

“The people of Puerto Rico are wonderful,” Trump tweeted last October, “but the inept politicians are trying to use the massive and ridiculously high amounts of hurricane/disaster funding to pay off other obligations.” That tweet came shortly after the $82 billion estimate referenced above.

Tuesday’s report about Trump’s focus on Puerto Rico follows several similar reports. The tweet above followed a similar bout of irritation by the president last September, when he reportedly told top aides that he didn’t want the island to receive any additional relief funding. Last November, Axios reported that Trump wanted to rescind some already approved funding for the island out of concern over mismanagement. Late last month, Trump asked advisers how to limit federal spending on the island, according to Post reporting. That coincided with a fight over a lapse in food-stamp coverage when Congress failed to reauthorize funding. Some 1.3 million island residents are affected by the lapse, with a similar funding gap in Medicaid looming.

The Post reported Tuesday that HUD’s inspector general was reviewing whether the White House interfered in relief funding for Puerto Rico.

Again, it’s not clear how firmly Trump’s objections are rooted in actual spending figures. The island hasn’t received $91 billion, a number that doesn’t appear to overlap with any figure that’s actually under consideration. By citing that seemingly inflated figure, Trump’s hoping to bolster his political case against additional spending — which, ironically, is exactly what he criticizes his opponents of doing when they note the estimated death toll of nearly 3,000 people. That number, he claims, is inflated to make him look bad. Meanwhile, he seems to be inflating the spending number to make Puerto Rico look bad.

Trump’s administration of the executive branch often operates in a space adjacent to data and factual findings. Rarely, though, is that methodology as readily apparent.