Delegation to Puerto Rico spars with Trump over timing of trip

Delegation to Puerto Rico spars with Trump over timing of trip
© Greg Nash

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The largest-ever delegation of lawmakers to visit a U.S. territory found itself in an exchange of words with President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE for leaving Washington during a partial government shutdown.

The 36-member delegation was in town over the weekend for the annual summit of the Latino Victory Fund (LVF), an organization focused on increasing political participation, as well as a convention for Bold PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s campaign arm.

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President Trump lambasted the Democratic trip in a tweet Monday morning and then again while speaking to reporters.

“A lot of the Democrats were in Puerto Rico celebrating something. I don’t know, maybe they’re celebrating the shutdown,” Trump said outside the White House before going to speak at an event in New Orleans. “We have a very big crisis, a humanitarian crisis on the border. Everybody knows it, they know it.”

Henry Muñoz, one of the founders of the LVF, was among those who fired back at the president for his remarks.

“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. That is almost like saying that this is not a part of our country,” said Muñoz, who serves as the Democratic National Committee’s national finance chair. “Would people say the same thing if 25 congresspeople went to Louisiana or Florida or to Arkansas or to Kansas?”

“This is not a celebration,” he added.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), Bold PAC’s chairman, told The Hill he chose Puerto Rico for this year’s convention to showcase the territory’s needs as it slowly recovers from Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island in 2017.

“One of the reasons was to show that going to Puerto Rico means that you’re helping fellow Americans and you’re helping the American economy. In addition to that, the more important side than that is making sure that we came to see for ourselves what is the condition of Puerto Rico. How bad is it? And it’s bad,” said Cárdenas.

He went on to say that members of the delegation were in Puerto Rico to do serious work.

“We started planning this a year ago, and just because there’s a Trump shutdown it doesn’t mean that the world is going to stop. We appreciate and respect every single worker who’s being punished by Donald Trump. But at the same time, there’s over 3.2 million Puerto Rican American citizens on this island that deserve for us to continue to do our job,” said Cárdenas.

Part of the criticism also centered on the fact that actor and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original-cast run of his hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” premiered over the weekend when lawmakers were visiting.

Miranda, speaking at the LVF summit, said it’s a “miracle” the lawmakers were in town.

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“We brought ‘Hamilton’ here to bring a spotlight to Puerto Rico,” he said. “I’m grateful to see so many cameras here.”

Most lawmakers attended a performance on Sunday, but Cárdenas said the delegation’s main focus was on policy discussions the previous day, when they heard from top Puerto Rican officials, including Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D), San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz (D) and Ponce Mayor María “Mayita” Meléndez (D), as well as local business leaders, nongovernmental organizations and the island’s fiscal control board.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the policy sessions helped him understand the nuances of how Puerto Rico’s financial and political situations are intertwined.

Nadler told The Hill he was most surprised by the structure of the fiscal control board, an oversight organization established by Congress in 2016 to oversee Puerto Rico’s fiscal health.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezEnding the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean We can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's The Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison MORE (D-N.J.) said he learned about friction between labor and government in implementing a legislative package setting the minimum wage at $15 per hour.

Guam Del. Michael San Nicolas (D), a new member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the political issues plaguing Puerto Rico’s financial situation are familiar to him as a territorial representative.

“We have nowhere near this much attention from the elected federal officials either. So it’s a really great thing that Bold PAC is moving members to be able to see firsthand what’s going on,” said San Nicolas. “It wasn’t necessarily something I didn’t know, it’s something I didn’t realize was so pervasive among the territories. But the way the inequities that we have compared to states affect our fiscal situation is similar whether you’re in the Caribbean or you’re in the Pacific.”

The policy discussion touched on the Puerto Rico statehood debate, questions over how to repay Puerto Rico’s massive outstanding debt and the Democratic House majority’s role in getting appropriated disaster relief funds to the island.

Congress has appropriated more than $18 billion for Puerto Rico disaster recovery in community development block grants managed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). About $2.6 billion been allotted to projects on the island.

Julián Castro, HUD secretary during the Obama administration, told the LVF summit that the Trump administration “failed the people of Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit.”

“This work is nothing new to me,” said Castro, who on Saturday announced he is running for president in 2020. “I had the opportunity to visit places like Louisiana and Texas and New York and New Jersey who understand the process of recovering from a natural disaster.”

Cruz, meanwhile, lambasted the president for his administration’s actions toward Puerto Rico and for demanding federal funds to build a border wall.

“The president is egocentric, machista, racist, doesn’t know what he’s got in his hands,” she said. “The only thing he is doing is debilitating the image of the United States before the world. He doesn’t represent American values.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cárdenas said the members will return from the trip and “feel in their heart, in their gut, in their mind that Puerto Rico has been treated as a forgotten place in America.”

“The pressure that we will put on this administration and the departments, I believe that it will [speed up recovery funds],” he said. “And the only way that our efforts don’t speed up the money coming to the island is if the administration digs in their heels and refuses to do so.”