Trump reignites Puerto Rico feud amid Hurricane Dorian

President Trump on Wednesday rekindled his spat with Puerto Rican leaders as Hurricane Dorian approached the island.

The president blasted San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as “incompetent,” demeaned the island as “one of the most corrupt places on earth” and diverted Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds toward the southern border even as his administration is expected to provide assistance to the U.S. territory in the wake of yet another large-scale storm.

The moves mark a fresh chapter in the long-simmering feud between Trump and island officials stemming from criticism over his handling of the fallout from Hurricane Maria.

{mosads}“Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!”
“And by the way, I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico!” he added.

Trump’s tweets are fodder for his critics, both on the island and stateside. 

Immigration activists, angered over a separate administration move to reallocate $271 million in emergency relief funds within the Department of Homeland Security to pay for more immigration detention beds, have lashed out at the president.

“The common thread of Trump and [senior White House adviser] Stephen Miller’s immigration is simple: defy democracy to endanger people of color. Instead of helping Puerto Rico, still reeling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, they supersede Congress to strip FEMA of funding, hours before another storm hits,” said Doug Rivlin, a spokesman for America’s Voice.

But the tweets have been especially hard on Trump’s allies on the island, who’ve been forced into a difficult balancing act between keeping an irascible president at bay and avoiding being associated with his tweets.

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico), who’s taken flak for keeping communication open with the White House, said the local reaction to the president’s latest tweets was “horrible.”

“I’m surprised by the statements made on Twitter by the president,” said González.

“I understand his months-long fight with the mayor of San Juan,” said González, adding that she “coincides” with Trump in her views of Cruz.

She later tweeted, tagging Trump, that hurricanes “are no one’s fault.”

“This is the time for all of us to stand shoulder to shoulder to help our fellow Americans suffering from a natural disaster,” she added, thanking Trump for deploying personnel and declaring an emergency.

González noted that the island’s focus is on weathering the storm under a new preparedness program designed after Maria.

Trump’s direct accusations of territory-wide corruption put the island’s top three elected officials, González, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Speaker Carlos Johnny Méndez — all Republicans — in an uncomfortable position.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced, who was appointed after former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) resigned and was briefly succeeded by former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D), does not have a national party affiliation, but has said she identifies with Republican ideals.

Trump has been unwilling to move on from criticism over his handling of Hurricane Maria, which battered Puerto Rico in 2017. The storm crippled island infrastructure for months, and a government-commissioned study found that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the hurricane.

Island officials and prominent Puerto Ricans chastised the Trump administration for the lack of organization and urgency around its recovery efforts.

But the president has rarely missed an opportunity to trumpet the response to Maria as a success. He has at various points called the government reaction to the storm “fantastic,” an “unsung success,” graded it a “10” and accused Puerto Rican officials, including Cruz, of being ungrateful.

He has repeatedly claimed that the government allocated a record-setting $91 billion to Puerto Rico’s recovery, a figure that fact-checkers have said is inflated by roughly $75 billion.

The $91 billion figure is a commonly-used estimate of the amount of money scheduled to arrive in Puerto Rico as disaster relief over the next 20 years.

According to FEMA, $5.8 billion has been obligated as public assistance grants and $1.3 billion has been approved as individual and household aid.

The largest package of reconstruction funds, $8.3 billion allocated through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has not reached the island.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced earlier this month that HUD will further delay delivery of those funds, without giving a due date for when they may be expected.

“Recovery efforts in jurisdictions prepared to do their part should not be held back due to alleged corruption, fiscal irregularities and financial mismanagement occurring in Puerto Rico and capacity issues in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which is why HUD will award disaster mitigation funds in two separate tranches,” said Carson in a statement.

Trump on Tuesday approved an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico to mobilize resources ahead of the latest storm, but the president has appeared exasperated as Dorian gains strength while tracking toward the island. He questioned Tuesday “when will it end?” and on Wednesday lamented that another storm was going to hit Puerto Rico, “as usual.”

Cruz on Tuesday night urged Trump to “get out of the way” of ongoing efforts to prepare for Dorian.

“It seems like some people have learned the lessons of the past or are willing to say that they didn’t do right by us the first time and they’re trying to do their best. That is not the case with the president of the United States,” Cruz told CNN.

White House officials have defended Trump’s commitment to helping the island, and dismissed criticisms about redirecting FEMA funds by arguing that reprogramming money is standard in any administration.

But Democrats have hammered the White House over the timing of the announcement, noting it came at the start of hurricane season. Lawmakers blasted the move as “dangerous,” “disgraceful” and “cruel,” and raised concerns it would hinder the ability to get resources to those who need it in places like Puerto Rico.

“Taking these critical funds from disaster preparedness & recovery efforts threatens lives & weakens the government’s ability to help Americans in the wake of natural disasters,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley, asked specifically about Schumer’s criticism, argued that the diverted FEMA funds will have no bearing on preparedness and recovery efforts before turning the criticism around to Puerto Rican leaders.

“I’ll tell you what’s cruel and I‘ll tell you what puts people’s lives in danger. When local politicians in Puerto Rico misuse taxpayer funds,” Gidley said. “Giving to politicians as bonuses, watching that food rot in the ports. The water went bad.”

“The fact is we have FEMA officials on the ground there,” he added. “We’re in constant contact with them at the local level to prepare them for this storm and anything that follows it.”

Tags Ben Carson Charles Schumer Donald Trump Hurricane Dorian Hurricane Maria Pedro Pierluisi Puerto Rico Stephen Miller
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