President Trump on Tuesday falsely accused “inept politicians” in Puerto Rico of seeking to use “ridiculously high” levels of hurricane relief funding to pay off debts that have left the U.S. commonwealth in bankruptcy.
“The U.S. will NOT bail out long outstanding & unpaid obligations with hurricane relief money!” Trump said in a tweet that represented his latest salvo toward leaders of the island since it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria a little more than a year ago.
In fact, neither Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló — or a federal board that oversees the territory’s finances — have argued that federal disaster relief funds should be used to directly pay off debts. Rosselló and other local leaders have actively advocated against such a move.
Trump’s tweet came as the federally appointed control board approved a five-year fiscal plan Tuesday. The plan projects that $82 billion in anticipated federal disaster funds will bolster the island’s economy, better positioning it to pay off debts in the future.
“The president is confusing the oversight board’s position with that of the government of Puerto Rico,” said Sergio Marxuach of the Center for a New Economy, the leading think tank on the island.
He said the oversight board’s plan estimates surpluses in forgone years for Puerto Rico because the board expects federal disaster relief funds will stimulate the economy. But federal dollars are not directly being used for debt payment. Rather, they are going to infrastructure and other reconstruction post-Maria, Marxuach explained.
Rosselló and other leaders in Puerto Rico have argued that the plan is too austere.
In a tweet Tuesday, Rosselló wrote that he agrees with Trump that hurricane relief should not be used for debt payments, adding “that’s why I’m opposing the Oversight Board’s outrageous plan that would severely hamper Puerto Rico’s recovery and growth.”
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who publicly pleaded with Trump for a swifter federal response in the wake of Maria, also said in a tweet directed at the president Tuesday that “we finally AGREE on something.”
A White House spokesman did not return a request for elaboration on the reasoning in Trump’s tweet.
Trump has had a turbulent relationship with Puerto Rican officials. As the commonwealth was still reeling from the storm, he tweeted that Cruz was “totally incompetent.”
Trump has more recently questioned the findings of a government-commissioned George Washington University study, which estimated that the island suffered nearly 3,000 “excess deaths” during the storm and its aftermath. Trump suggested without evidence that the number had been inflated by Democrats to make him look bad.
In a radio interview last month, Trump said he was an “absolute no” on statehood for Puerto Rico — a move that Rosselló had just argued would help facilitate recovery from storms such as Maria.