The grants come a month and a half before the 2020 election, with polls suggesting Trump’s opponent Joe Biden lags behind past Democratic candidates on the Hispanic vote — and with Puerto Rican voters playing a particularly large role in the all-important swing state of Florida, which polls show currently rests on a razor’s edge. A post-Maria influx of Puerto Ricans pushed their population in the Sunshine State to over 1.2 million, or about 5 percent of the state’s entire population.
The timing of the grants is eyebrow-raising enough. But then you layer on top the fact that Trump has repeatedly suggested Puerto Rico should not be given more money because it would be wasted by corrupt politicians.
Trump began with this kind of rhetoric early in his presidency, even before Maria struck the island, accusing Democrats of wanting to “bail out Puerto Rico.”
After the storm struck and the federal response came under criticism — including Trump personally for a visit in which he was pictured playfully tossing rolls of paper towels — the president began to hit back. With estimated costs for the recovery soaring, Trump repeatedly balked.
“Puerto Rico survived the hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making,” he quoted a conservative media ally saying on Oct. 12, 2017, less than a month after Maria struck the island. He added: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”
By the following year, Trump made clear he wasn’t joking. The White House effectively told Congress that Puerto Rico was being cut off from more aid. Trump came to wrongly believe that the aid money was being used to pay off the island’s debts.
“The people of Puerto Rico are wonderful but the inept politicians are trying to use the massive and ridiculously high amounts of hurricane/disaster funding to pay off other obligations,” Trump said.
The tweets proliferated in the months to come, including Trump’s repeated, false claim that Puerto Rico had gotten more than $90 billion in aid.
Trump’s continued comments in this vein and his reluctance to send more money eventually alienated the island’s then-governor, Ricardo Rosselló, who had initially been the president’s chief character witness on the island for the federal response.
Even early this year, Trump told Fox News host Geraldo Rivera, “Puerto Rico is — has been very, very poorly run by Democrats. Very, very poorly run.”
Around the same time, the White House demanded changes if Puerto Rico were to receive aid for earthquakes.
Trump’s reluctance to aid Puerto Rico had very real consequences. A study in the past year in the journal BMJ Global Health found that it got far less than it needed, relative to U.S. states facing similar problems. The report said that “the federal government responded on a larger scale and much more quickly across measures of federal money and staffing to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, compared with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The variation in the responses was not commensurate with storm severity and need after landfall in the case of Puerto Rico compared with Texas and Florida.”
The thing is: Trump is right that Puerto Rico has struggled mightily with corruption. But there’s also little evidence that this problem has suddenly disappeared in advance of the Trump administration suddenly relenting on awarding more aid.
Rosselló resigned in the summer of 2019, amid protests against him and officials in his administration accused of corruption. Protests also erupted earlier this year over mishandling of aid, which included a warehouse full of unused disaster-response supplies. The protesters demanded the resignation of Puerto Rico’s new governor, Wanda Vázquez Garced, and in July she and other top officials became targets of an official government investigation. The FBI also made the latest in arrests as recently as August in the case of an ongoing corruption probe involving Puerto Rico’s education system, which benefits from one of the new grants.
Trump was asked about the convenient timing at a news conference Friday, and he notably didn’t contend that his former hang-up — corruption — has been dealt with.
“We’re building it up as a great medical, pharmaceutical, manufacturing area,” he said, adding, “We’re going to bring it back.”
He soon turned to corruption, but not in the past tense.
“Puerto Rico has been very corrupt in terms of its politicians,” Trump said. “You see that one after another. It’s been unbelievably corrupt, and we’re studying that and working on that.”
The steps above could certainly be seen as progress in the fight against corruption — and perhaps there were assurances made, though the Trump administration hasn’t detailed any. But it doesn’t exactly suggest the same corruption the president warned about has been rooted out. And yet the Trump administration has decided to award additional aid to the island at a politically convenient time — years after the tragedy it is responding to.
Trump, at one point, even suggested the delay was because of other politicians.
“We’re awarding $13 billion to permanently repair and replace thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines that should have been done many years ago,” Trump said.
But Trump is clearly the one who refused to provide it for the past couple of years.