More than 18 months after a devastating hurricane slammed into Puerto Rico, President Trump continues to publicly attack the island’s leaders and oppose federal aid efforts, a fixation that could hurt his reelection chances in Florida.
On Tuesday, Trump accused Puerto Rican politicians of gross incompetence and corruption, saying on Twitter that they “only take from the USA.” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley echoed those comments during an interview with MSNBC, referring to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, as “that country.”
Trump’s attacks are likely to get the attention of thousands of Puerto Rican voters whose growing numbers in Florida could be pivotal in 2020, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist.
“This is a state where elections turn on less than one-half of 1 percent,” she said. “And the largest cache of new voters is in that community. Why is he picking this fight now?”
Trump’s path to reelection would narrow significantly if he does not win Florida, home to more than 1 million U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican population, which is heavily concentrated in Central Florida, has grown significantly in recent years, as the island has been hit with a one-two punch of economic turmoil and debilitating hurricanes.
While Trump has tried to present himself as a defender of the island — tweeting Tuesday that “the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico is President Donald J. Trump” — Puerto Ricans have a dim view of the president. Trump’s handling of Hurricane Maria in 2017 is the chief driver of his low numbers, said Greg Batista, executive director of the Puerto Rican Alliance of Florida.
“Everybody has seen how that whole fiasco went down with the emergency response in Maria,” Batista said. “The people who were living here actually saw it and lived it. It was just a fiasco on many levels.”
About 70 percent of Puerto Ricans in Florida have a “bad” or “very bad” opinion of Trump, according to a poll released in June by Florida International University and the Puerto Rican Alliance of Florida, a nonprofit. Only 18 percent had a positive view of the president, the poll of 1,000 Florida-based Puerto Ricans found.
Some Republicans have expressed concern that Trump’s verbal attacks could hurt his chances in Florida, whose 29 electoral votes are often decided by a small sliver of the state’s 13 million registered voters.
One former senior Republican official in Puerto Rico noted that Democrats would seek to use “unforced political errors” by Trump to hurt the GOP’s chances in Florida in 2020. The official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said that while Trump and a Republican-led Congress passed record funding for hurricane relief in 2017, the distribution of the funds has been “extremely slow.”
“The pace needs to pick up speed,” the official said.
Trump’s latest attacks, including false claims that the federal government has provided $91 billion in recovery aid for Puerto Rico, have led to an increasingly public fight between the president and the top officials of a U.S. territory struggling to recover from a hurricane that killed thousands of Americans.
Trump has grown increasingly frustrated with Puerto Rican recovery efforts and the federal disaster aid that he claims is being misused. He has asked top advisers about ways to limit federal support going to the island in the wake of the 2017 hurricane, which knocked out power on the island for months.
A massive emergency aid bill for victims of hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters was defeated in the Senate on Monday amid a fight between Democrats and Trump over the Puerto Rico relief.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) mostly blamed Democrats for the failure of the bill, but he also said to “ask the president,” when asked whether Trump should accept more funding for Puerto Rico as the price for passing the larger disaster bill.
Trump went to bed Monday tweeting insults about Puerto Rico, and he began Tuesday doing the same.
“Puerto Rico got far more money than Texas & Florida combined, yet their government can’t do anything right, the place is a mess — nothing works,” he tweeted Monday.
On Tuesday morning, he added, “all their local politicians do is complain & ask for more money. The pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA.”
Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, responded to Trump’s tweets Tuesday with a Twitter attack of his own.
“Mr. President: STOP spreading misinformation! #PuertoRico has not received $91b (only 300M in permanent work). It’s not ‘us’ vs ‘them’. It’s about Americans in need,” said Rosselló, who recently described Trump as a “bully” and threatened during an interview on CNN to punch him in the mouth.
Kayleigh McEnany, a spokeswoman for Trump’s reelection, defended the president’s hurricane response in Puerto Rico, and she said Puerto Ricans in Florida were benefiting from the president’s policies.
“In response to Hurricane Maria, President Trump oversaw the largest FEMA response operation in history, providing billions of dollars in aid,” she said. “Additionally, Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland are experiencing the hottest economy in modern history, with generational lows in unemployment and paychecks growing twice as fast for those on the bottom half of the income spectrum.”
In private, Trump has asked advisers how he is doing politically in Puerto Rico, but he does not see the island’s largely Democratic electorate as key to his reelection, current and former aides said.
Trump recently viewed a chart from budget officials that showed money appropriated for the island’s recovery efforts as well as potential additional costs, and the number appears to match estimates of $91 billion in total damage inflicted by the hurricane. But Congress has not approved near that amount so far.
Aides have also shown Trump charts and graphs from before the storm — showing that many were already without power before the hurricane hit.
Trump has complained, West Wing officials said, about Rosselló and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Trump sees Cruz as a publicly advantageous target and still resents her criticisms of the FEMA response after Maria, aides said.
Trump has told aides that the federal government’s response was robust and that he was unfairly criticized for throwing paper towels to a group of hurricane survivors during a visit to Puerto Rico in 2017.
The president also describes Puerto Rico as a negative business transaction for the United States, according to a senior administration official who has interacted with him and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s views.
Trump’s campaign apparatus has specifically targeted Florida, and a pro-Trump political group has begun polling in the state. The president has talked about his actions in Venezuela as being popular in Florida, a campaign adviser said, but doesn’t see Puerto Rico as critical.
“In Trump’s mind, Puerto Rico will always have screwed him,” said a senior administration official who has discussed the issue with Trump and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the conversation. “He’s not going to drop it.”
One White House official said Trump was focused so intently on Puerto Rico because he’s receiving so much criticism. Trump brought the issue up unprompted at a meeting with senators last Tuesday on Capitol Hill and has repeatedly emphasized to senators that he doesn’t want additional aid going to the island, one senior GOP aide said.
In his flurry of tweets attacking Puerto Rico and its officials this week, Trump made sure to twice praise the island’s residents — potential voters — as “GREAT” and “wonderful.”
Democrats have struggled to capitalize on the arrival of thousands of Puerto Ricans settling in Florida in recent years, as voter turnout has lagged other Hispanic groups in the state, MacManus said.
And Trump’s earlier string of attacks hitting Puerto Rico before the 2018 midterms didn’t appear to have a discernible impact on Florida’s high-profile races for governor and senator. Republicans in both races publicly distanced themselves from Trump after he questioned the death toll in Puerto Rico, but ultimately campaigned with him in the final days of the race and won narrow victories.
Still, there are some who are publicly criticizing Trump for attacking Puerto Ricans who could hold the key to his reelection chances.
George T. Conway III, a conservative lawyer who has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of Trump, sarcastically called the president’s fixation on Puerto Rico “another stable genius move.”
“Cut off aid to Puerto Rico so that more people move from there to Florida, a swing state, in time to vote in 2020,” Conway, who is married to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, said on Twitter. “Brilliant!”