WASHINGTON DC — President Donald Trump, in a closed door meeting Tuesday with Senate Republicans, again took a swipe at Puerto Rico’s fiscal management and the size of its disaster relief in the wake of damaging storms last week — and he brought a visual aid to try and back up his point, according to senators in the room.
Trump, as part of broader remarks that touched on everything from special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and health care to trade and North Korea, went out of his way to point out the totals of disaster relief aid that has been distributed in the wake of a series of storms and hurricanes in 2017. It is an issue Trump has had for months — mentioning Puerto Rico’s finances and total disaster relief in negative terms repeatedly in meetings with lawmakers and staff as they’ve worked through iterations of the next disaster relief bill.
“The point was — are we spending the money wisely?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican asked. “I have nothing against helping the people of Puerto Rico, but we have got to spend the money wisely.”
Trump, senators said, then utilized a chart to showed the difference between what Puerto Rico has received compared to other states like Texas and Florida. At one point, Trump noted that Puerto Rico has received more than $90 billion in aid. Congressional officials asked about the total mentioned by Trump that didn’t track with what Congress has provided in aid up to this point.
“He just talked about the sum total of it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, told reporters of Trump’s Puerto Rico riff.
“I agree that you should always be accounting for how money is spent, but Puerto Rico certainly has needs that were different than some of these other places,” Rubio added, noting the island had been hit by multiple storms and was already in dire financial straits before that damage occurred.
Asked for comment on the senators’ description of Trump’s remarks, the White House responded in a statement.
“The Trump Administration is committed to the complete recovery of Puerto Rico. 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.”
Sen. Richard Shelby, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said Trump was “making the point that Puerto Rico has gotten a lot of money before and a lot of it hadn’t been spent wisely, and I think that’s a given.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló blasted Trump’s reported comments in a lengthy statement, saying they “are below the dignity of a sitting President of the United States. They continue to lack empathy, are irresponsible, regrettable and, above all, unjustified.”
He said Puerto Rico has spent disaster aid responsibly and suggested that “Trump is receiving misleading information from his own staff.”
“I invite the President to stop listening to ignorant and completely wrong advice,” Rosselló said. “Instead he should come to Puerto Rico to hear firsthand from the people on the ground. 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 issue of Puerto Rico — and the President’s stated frustration with what the island has received up to this point — is coming to a head now as lawmakers work to reach a deal on a disaster relief package. Senate Republicans, who unveiled their own $13.4 billion version Tuesday, include $600 million for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, for the island. The Senate voted Tuesday to begin consideration of the bill.
But the GOP effort falls short of what House Democrats are pushing for regarding aid to Puerto Rico.
“House Democrats oppose this bill because it does not adequately address disaster relief and recovery in Puerto Rico and the territories,” Evan Hollander, spokesman for House Appropriations Committee, said of the Senate bill. “If the Senate passes this bill, we will insist on going to conference to ensure that we meet the needs of all Americans.”
A spokesperson for Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida said that the topic of funding for Puerto Rico is an “ongoing conversation” between Trump and Scott.
“His view is that we need to get this bill done now since both Florida and Puerto Rico need this funding now,” spokesman Chris Hartline said. “The senator is committed to fighting for the people of Puerto Rico in the US Senate. It’s why his first floor speech and his first amendment filed was on nutrition assistance funding for Puerto Rico.”