Donald Trump

‘Enough With the Insults,' Puerto Rico Gov. Says After Trump Opposes Further Disaster Aid

"We are not your political adversaries," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló says. "We are your citizens"

Puerto Rico's Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said President Donald Trump was getting "misleading information" and should stop "with the insults," hours after Trump told GOP allies at a Capitol Hill meeting Tuesday that the U.S. island territory has gotten too much rebuilding money compared with mainland states like Florida and Texas.

Trump's opposition to further disaster aid for hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico hardened on Tuesday, with the president reportedly asking why Puerto Rico was getting $91 billion. But that number seemed closer to an estimate of damage and nowhere close to what has been spent so far on Puerto Rico's recovery, The Washington Post reported.   

“The comments attributed to Donald Trump today by senators from his own party are below the dignity of a sitting President of the United States," Rosselló said in the statement. "They continue to lack empathy, are irresponsible, regrettable and, above all, unjustified."

Rosselló added: “Mr. President: Enough with the insults and demeaning mischaracterizations. We are not your political adversaries; we are your citizens."

Trump's ardent opposition to additional Puerto Rico funding sets up a showdown with House Democrats, who insist that a $13 billion to $14 billion disaster aid package that's a top priority for southern Republicans won't advance without further aid for the island.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said Trump told Republicans at a closed-door luncheon on Tuesday that aid for Puerto Rico "is way out of proportion to what Texas and Florida and others have gotten."

According to the Post, Puerto Rico has estimated it would need $139 billion to ultimately recover, while Texas and Florida have asked for $67 billion and $27 billion respectively. 

Puerto Rico has so far received nearly $3 billion from FEMA through the public assistance grant program. FEMA has issued another $2 billion for individual assistance. 

Puerto Rico also has received $1.5 billion in community development block grant disaster recovery funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report on Monday stating that Puerto Rico had not drawn down any of the money. HUD said in a statement that it historically takes grantees several years to disburse disaster recovery funding. 

Overall, $40 billion has been allocated for Puerto Rico recovery, according to the White House. That contrasts with $25 billion allocated so far for Hurricane Harvey recovery in Texas and $7 billion for Hurricane Irma in Florida. 

Trump does support $600 million to maintain post-Hurricane Maria food stamp benefits that were slashed this month, Rubio said, but opposes more generous terms for delivery of disaster aid dollars and funding to rebuild antiquated water systems and make them more resilient to future storms.

“The Trump Administration is committed to the complete recovery of Puerto Rico," White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere told NBC News. "The island has received unprecedented support and is on pace to receive tens of billions of dollars from taxpayers. However, the Trump Administration will not put taxpayers on the hook to correct a decades old spending crisis that has left the island with deep-rooted economic problems."

Rosselló countered that Puerto Rico is "not asking for anything more than any other U.S. state has received." 

He added that Trump had agreed to a meeting with him over recovery and reconstruction for the island following his recent trip to Vietnam. But since then no confirmation or date has been set despite several requests. 

“I invite the President to stop listening to ignorant and completely wrong advice. Instead he should come to Puerto Rico to hear firsthand from the people on the ground," Rosselló said. "I invite him to put all of the resources at his disposal to help Americans in Puerto Rico, like he did for Texas and Alabama. No more, no less." 

The disaster aid package cleared a procedural hurdle by a 90-10 vote and is expected to pass the Senate as early as late this week, which would set up talks with the Democratic-controlled House. House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said the House will insist on further aid for Puerto Rico or the disaster aid measure won't clear Congress.

"Nearly 3,000 American lives were lost in the historic storms that devastated Puerto Rico and destroyed its infrastructure, and the island is still struggling to recover," Lowey said in a joint statement with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The measure has wide support from both Democrats and Republicans and is ardently backed by Trump loyalists such as David Perdue, R-Ga., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., whose states were slammed by hurricanes last fall. The measure has been expanded so that Midwestern states such as Iowa and Nebraska that are currently suffering from flooding are eligible for disaster help.

"Just at the time when harvesting was starting, Hurricane Michael hit and crops were completely destroyed across most of our state," Perdue said.

The House passed a companion $14.2 billion version of the legislation in January, but it got tangled up in the politics of the partial government shutdown and Trump's demands for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The measure is especially sought by lawmakers from Southern states like Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, which were hit by hurricanes Michael and Florence last year. There's money to respond to an earthquake in Alaska, wildfires in California and floods in South Carolina and for the ongoing recovery effort in Puerto Rico, which was devastated by back-to-back hurricanes in 2017.

The Trump administration has been slow to deliver the aid to Puerto Rico that Congress has already approved for the island.

Federal officials said this week that starting April 1, the U.S. territory will no longer have to wait for approval from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency before issuing reimbursements for cities and agencies trying to rebuild. 

There's currently an average two-month wait for reimbursement after people submit all required documents. Under the upcoming change, 75 percent of funds will be issued within three weeks after a request is submitted, with the remaining amount issued once the project is finished, said Omar Marrero, executive director of Puerto Rico's Office of Recovery and Reconstruction. 

"The lack of leadership and coordination, combined with delays in meeting the basic needs of the island, more than eighteen months after receiving a presidential disaster declaration, has left far too many children and elderly citizens in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, families in severely damaged homes, and communities without adequate infrastructure to sustain a decent quality of life," Leahy and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a letter to the White House on Tuesday.

Rosselló said in his statement that the federal response in the aftermath of Maria "is clear evidence of our second-class citizenship." 

“We are not asking for anything more than any other U.S. state has received," he said. "We are merely asking for equality.” 

Last fall, Trump tweeted falsely that the government of Puerto Rico was using disaster aid funding to pay off its debt. 

“I want to be very clear: Not a single federal dollar has been used to make debt payments," Rosselló said. "This has been the most transparent recovery in the history of the United States, providing unprecedented access and collaboration with federal agencies."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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