“Puerto Rico has been given more money by Congress for Hurricane Disaster Relief, 91 Billion Dollars, than any State in the history of the U.S.”
— President Trump, in a tweet, May 6, 2019
We originally wrote about Trump’s eye-popping claim that Puerto Rico had received $91 billion in aid back in March, when The Washington Post reported that he had raised this number in a meeting with Republican senators. We did not offer a rating, only an explanation, because we did not have a direct quote. Senators interpreted his comment as referring to money already committed or spent, but administration officials said he was talking about future liabilities to recover from 2016′s Hurricane Maria.
We later learned that the White House would refer reporters to our column when there were queries about this number. Perhaps officials also should bring it to the attention of the president, as we have since noted a tendency by the president to act as if the money was already spent.
That’s wrong, and worthy of Pinocchios.
There are three numbers to keep track of:
- $11.2 billion: spent
- $40.8 billion: allocated
- $91 billion: guesstimate for potential liabilities over the next 20 years.
In other words, Trump is acting as if the money has been already doled out to the island. But administration officials had told The Fact Checker it’s an internal Office of Management and Budget estimate of the potential liabilities over the life of the disaster that would need to be committed under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988. The estimate was described as a high-end estimate subject to change year by year.
Currently, the estimated Stafford liabilities amount to $50 billion. Adding the $41 billion in announced funding to the $50 billion in Stafford liabilities gets you to $91 billion.
But this number is well beyond the traditional 10-year budget horizon. No one really knows how it will shake out. The government is still paying for the damage from Hurricane Katrina almost 14 years after it struck New Orleans.
While Trump describes this theoretical number as the highest ever given to a state, it’s important to remember that Puerto Rico is an island that received the full brunt of the storm. The Congressional Research Service says Congress “provided roughly $120 billion for Hurricane Katrina,” but that storm hit three states — Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The Pinocchio Test
It’s simply false for the president to assert that Puerto Rico has received $91 billion. It has been allocated less than half of that, and the president is treating a guesstimate as an established fact. There may be valid reasons for the estimate, though OMB has not explained them. But there’s still no excuse for the president to cite the number as a solid figure.
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