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Nearly everything Trump just said about Puerto Rico is wrong

President Trump and members of his Cabinet have delivered mixed messages on Puerto Rico’s recovery since it was struck by Hurricane Maria in the fall of 2017. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s antipathy toward the ongoing relief effort in Puerto Rico burst into full view on Tuesday morning.

Multiple news reports over the past few months have suggested that the president opposes spending more money on the island, including stories late last month that he’d specifically derided the amount being spent on recovery in a visit to Capitol Hill. Trump has long been criticized for his slow response to the damage caused by Hurricane Maria in the summer of 2017, and he has consistently tried to deflect blame for the storm’s aftermath, which left nearly 3,000 people dead.

On Monday, the Senate failed to pass legislation providing funding to bolster the food-stamp program on the island along with relief for floods in the Midwest. Last month, funding for food stamps ran out in Puerto Rico after Congress failed to reauthorize spending, a necessary step because Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state. Senate Democrats support a measure providing more support to Puerto Rico than Republicans — especially Trump — are willing to provide.

Massive disaster relief bill stalls in Senate over Puerto Rico dispute

That failed vote triggered a pair of tweets from Trump that are sweeping in their misrepresentations of reality.

It’s probably simplest to walk through Trump’s claims as he presents them.

“Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane”: Puerto Rico has not received $91 billion for hurricane recovery. So far, about $11 billion has been sent to the island. The $91 billion figure that Trump likes to use is a combination of $41 billion that’s been set aside for recovery combined with $50 billion expected to be spent over the life of the recovery effort in accordance with legislation passed in 1988. The full scope of the recovery could take several decades.

In the town of Yabucoa, residents say the Trump administration let them down and their struggle continues. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

“more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before”: 2005′s Hurricane Katrina, for which recovery efforts continue, cost more than $120 billion.

On Monday evening, Trump compared the spending in Puerto Rico unfavorably to Texas and Florida, which were also hit by hurricanes in 2017. But, of course, the type and extent of the damage in each place was very different. Hurricane Harvey did enormous damage in Texas and on the Gulf Coast, but the damage was less extensive and severe than in Puerto Rico. The higher cost in Puerto Rico is mostly a function of the damage that was done.

“& all their local politicians do is complain & ask for more money.”: Trump’s obviously being hyperbolic to some extent here, but it’s also worth remembering that there’s an existing crisis on the island as a result of food-stamp payments being curtailed. In this moment, there’s an outcry for a specific form of relief that seems warranted.

“The pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly”: This appears to be a central critique of Trump’s. He’s repeatedly complained that the funding going to the island was being wasted or spent to pay down that debt, without evidence. (He apparently became incensed by an article in the Wall Street Journal.)

This was Trump’s position from the outset. When the storm first hit, he tweeted that recovery would be hindered because Puerto Rico “was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt” and that the billions of dollars “owed to Wall Street and the banks ... must be dealt with.” Trump always saw Puerto Rico’s government as questionable and wasteful and then apparently seized on that idea to rationalize his arguments that the island was receiving too much money.

“& only take from USA....”: This is Trump’s most revealing comment. Puerto Rico is “taking from the United States,” of which, of course, it’s a part. But Trump tips his hand here that he sees this island in the Atlantic Ocean as something separate and less American than the continental United States.

“The best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico is President Donald J. Trump.”: In a Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted last year, more than half of Puerto Ricans said Trump had done a poor job in responding to the hurricane. Four in five said his job performance was at best “fair.”

Trump’s unstated argument here is probably akin to his argument about why black Americans should be pleased with his presidency: low unemployment rates.

“So many wonderful people, but with such bad Island leadership and with so much money wasted.”: In our poll, the local government on Puerto Rico received better marks than Trump, with a quarter of island residents saying the local response was “good” or better and only a third saying it was “poor.”

There’s no demonstrated evidence that any significant portion of funding has been wasted.

“Cannot continue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments”: Here, again, Trump draws a contrast between the states and Puerto Rico. The latter is “hurting” the former by having been hit by a hurricane and therefore needing help from its government. It’s safe to assume that Trump wouldn’t make a similar claim about how the recovery spending sent to Texas after Hurricane Harvey was hurting, say, Pennsylvania.

It’s important to note that the expense of these natural disasters is linked to the warming climate. Climate change models suggest more wildfires, like those that ravaged California in 2017, and more powerful hurricanes with heavier precipitation, like Harvey. Trump is willfully ignoring a growing crisis that is poised to make disaster spending a more acute problem for the government.

“and so little appreciation!”: What Trump hears from Puerto Rican leaders is not praise for the job he’s doing, but increasingly insistent requests for needed aid. He tunes into cable news and sees criticism, not kudos. He sees coverage of Puerto Rico and hears about nearly 3,000 deaths, a figure he refuses to accept because it serves as a grim measurement of his handling of the crisis. Puerto Rico is a headache for Trump, and it’s hard not to assume that part of his opposition to additional funding for the island stems from the fact that he’s frustrated by it.

The aftermath of Hurricane Maria is precisely the sort of event that tests presidential leadership. Trump’s misleading or false tweets on Tuesday morning give a sense of how he feels he’s faring in that test.