The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump announces aid package for Puerto Rico in a campaign year reversal Democrats call brazenly political

President Trump speaks with reporters at the White House in Washington on Sept. 18, 2020.
President Trump speaks with reporters at the White House in Washington on Sept. 18, 2020. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Trump on Friday announced a package of billions in federal aid for Puerto Rico to help it recover from a powerful hurricane that hit the island three years ago — a move that comes as his reelection campaign increasingly relies on winning Florida with support from its Latino communities.

The announcement marks a sharp reversal from the president’s past approach toward disaster aid for the U.S. territory, assistance that Trump and his administration had held up even as the island struggled to recover from hurricane Maria, which ravaged it in September 2017. Since that storm ripped across the island, Trump has repeatedly said he didn’t want more aid sent to Puerto Rico, publicly questioned the hurricane death toll and called the territory’s leaders corrupt while trading insults with some of them as they pushed Washington for more assistance.

But on Friday, Trump ignored that history and brazenly declared that his only interest has been in helping the island.

“I’m the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico,” Trump said at a news conference at the White House. “Nobody even close.”

Trump’s attacks on Puerto Rico could backfire in 2020 Florida campaign

The announcement Friday underscores the importance of winning Florida — which Trump designated as his official residence earlier this year — and its 29 electoral votes to his reelection chances.

He won the state by 1.2 percentage points in 2016, but recent polling shows him effectively tied with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Though Biden has several potential paths to winning the 270 electoral votes needed to secure the presidency, Trump has fewer routes, making Florida a more critical battleground for him. Both campaigns consider the state’s Puerto Rican population a key to securing victory.

Earlier this week, Biden traveled to Central Florida — an area rich with voters of Puerto Rican descent — and detailed his plans for the island amid signs that his own presidential bid was struggling to gain traction with Latinos in the state.

The FEMA package announced for Puerto Rico on Friday includes $9.6 billion for repairing the island’s electrical grid and a separate $2 billion grant for the island’s education department to rebuild schools and other facilities. The White House characterized it as the largest tranche of federal aid designated for a disaster aside from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

The federal largesse unveiled Friday runs counter not only to Trump’s long-running rhetorical feud with Puerto Rico and its current and former leaders, but also conflicts with his administration’s years-long efforts to stall or even eliminate disaster aid to the island after Maria. Trump has falsely claimed that Puerto Rico has been awarded more than $90 billion in federal assistance and has complained that the island was getting too much disaster aid.

The image most associated with Trump’s visit to the island in 2017 is of him tossing paper towels to residents who had gathered to receive emergency supplies.

Trump complains to senators that Puerto Rico is getting too much hurricane relief funding

Even now, there is still funding designated by lawmakers for Puerto Rico relief that the administration has yet to release, including $2 billion set aside for electrical projects — the precise target of Friday’s aid package — that has not been made available, according to a congressional aide. The Department of Housing and Urban Development would be responsible for releasing that money.

Among the instances where Trump stirred controversy regarding Puerto Rico is when he falsely claimed that the death toll was lower than official estimates, called Puerto Rico “one of the most corrupt places on earth” and implied that Puerto Rico was not part of the United States, saying in a tweet last year that its politicians “only take from USA.”

Trump also pressed the Office of Management and Budget to find ways to limit how much money went to the island, according to former administration officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. In recent years, Trump was presse by a number of aides, including former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, to let Puerto Rico have the money approved by Congress after the storm when the president repeatedly wanted to block it from being sent.

Miles Taylor, a former top official at the Department of Homeland Security, recently alleged that Trump wanted to swap Puerto Rico for Greenland, an autonomous Danish territory that the president has sought to acquire for the United States.

“Every time Puerto Rico would come up, his position would be that he didn’t want a dollar to go to the island,” one former senior administration official said. “Different people would explain to him why the island needed at least some of the money, but he wasn’t having any of it.”

Analysis: President Trump’s claim that Puerto Rico ‘has been given’ $91 billion

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) — whose outreach to Florida’s Puerto Rican community has been credited, in part, for his win against former Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in 2018 — speaks to Trump regularly about Puerto Rico and tries to ensure that the president is in regular communication with the island’s leaders.

“Since he ran in 2016, I have been clear that he needs to be very supportive of the island ... and got even more clear after Maria hit that he needs to be very supportive of relief efforts, very supportive of the rebuild of the economy,” Scott said Friday. “I have been a pain in the rear to him on this issue.”

Trump remains deeply unpopular among many Puerto Ricans, who blame him for the federal government’s poorly managed disaster relief efforts after Maria. Nonetheless, Scott argued that these voters would look beyond Trump’s past rhetoric and instead focus on the economy, education and public safety.

Tens of thousands of the island’s residents permanently moved to Florida in the aftermath of Maria, according to studies, and the state is home to more than 1.2 million people of Puerto Rican descent. Many of them live in Kissimmee, where Biden on Tuesday detailed a plan to develop a federal working group on Puerto Rico that would focus on storm recovery and economic advancement efforts. He also stressed his support of statehood for Puerto Rico, whose voters have a referendum on the issue in November.

Biden visits Florida as Democrats worry about his standing in the state

On Friday, the Biden campaign and other Democrats called the aid announcement a craven election-year ploy aimed at winning over Puerto Rican voters, who tend to favor Democrats. Tatiana Matta, the Biden campaign’s Latino adviser, said Trump was trying to “paper over his disgusting treatment of Puerto Ricans” — a move she called “utterly disrespectful and offensive.”

“For the thousands of families who had to leave the island, for all those we’ve lost, for those who still struggle every day to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, it is three years too little and too late,” Matta said.

One Trump campaign adviser said the president could have easily done this years ago instead of waiting this late, and the person said the lack of support among Puerto Ricans is “one of the reasons we are behind.” Campaign officials have noted to Trump that the Orlando area is particularly rich with Puerto Rican voters that the president needs to win over in November.

But Jenniffer González-Colón (R), Puerto Rico’s sole representative to Congress, defended the timing of the announcement, which came 46 days before the election.

She said that she, along with other government officials in the U.S. territory, have been working for months with Rear Adm. Peter Brown, the White House’s point person for Puerto Rico disaster recovery, to develop the aid package, which González-Colón said was “ready when it was ready.”

The grant money not only provides funding that Puerto Rico can immediately access, but the reconstruction of the electrical grid will provide the infrastructure to revive the island’s pharmaceutical and medical device sector and further spur its economy, González-Colón said.

“Many people may disagree with [Trump] in the things he has said, but he is delivering for the island with the resources we need,” she said, adding: “We’ve never received this amount of money, ever.”

Florida state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who represents a district in Miami-Dade County, said she thinks the administration’s disaster relief announcement is too little and too late to make a difference, and could even backfire in its brazenness.

“Talk about despacito,” she said. The word, which means “slowly” in Spanish, has been popularized by a song by Luis Fonsi that Biden played during his Florida appearance Tuesday. “It’s really actually quite insulting that a few weeks before an election, they now get religion? Give me a break.”

Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said an estimated 400,000 Puerto Ricans live in the greater Orlando metropolitan area, and he said new arrivals to the mainland are often swing voters who are more conservative in their political and religious views.

Sustained outreach by Republicans has given them relative strength with Latinos in Florida compared with other states — especially among Cubans, who have a long history of supporting Republicans, but increasingly also Puerto Ricans and perhaps also religious Latino voters of various ethnic backgrounds. Playing the margins could be effective in a race that is tight overall, Duany said.

“This could be a battle between Cuban Americans in South Florida and Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida,” he said. “A few thousand people can make a difference.”

Annie Linskey contributed to this report.