Trump administration doubles down on opposition to Puerto Rico funding

By Nicole Acevedo

The White House doubled down Wednesday on President Donald Trump’s comments opposing disaster funding for Puerto Rico, drawing outrage from Democratic members of Congress and raising questions about the administration’s rationale.

On Tuesday, Trump told Republican legislators at a closed-door Capitol Hill meeting that Puerto Rico had gotten too much money to rebuild after Hurricane Maria. The amount “is way out of proportion to what Texas and Florida and others have gotten,” Trump said, according to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who was in the room.

On Wednesday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere told NBC News that while Puerto Rico is on track to receive tens of billions of dollars in unprecedented aid, “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.”

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., who is Puerto Rican, blasted the administration’s comments in a statement.

“The President’s remarks as reported in the media have at long last laid bare the central reason for his Administration’s callous response to Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico,” said Velázquez, “namely that he does not value the lives of millions of American citizens who reside there.”

“For the President to vocally oppose and target aid to the most vulnerable in Puerto Rico is shameful, heartless and inexcusable,” the congresswoman added.

In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico; its aftermath led to the deaths of at least 2,975 people and made it the deadliest U.S. natural disaster in a century. Trump has not yet publicly acknowledged or mourned the victims of the catastrophe following the revised figures.

On Wednesday, a White House official told NBC News on background some of the reasons why the administration was opposed to more spending.

But in doing so, the administration got some facts wrong.

The official said that the Puerto Rican government had not yet submitted a plan to fix the island’s power grid. However, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced on Tuesday that he’s ready to sign into law a bill approved by the Puerto Rican legislature that would determine how the island plans to privatize its public power authority, known as PREPA, and expand renewable energy.

The bill has been in the works for over a year, when the island’s government first announced its plans to privatize at least part of its power authority.

An official also said that Puerto Rican officials have mismanaged disaster funds that have been received.

The claim is not new; since last year, Trump has repeatedly asked Congress to stop providing relief and reconstruction money to Puerto Rico.

Trump has claimed in previous occasions that the island was trying to use recovery money to pay its $72 billion public debt.

However, neither Puerto Rican officials nor the U.S. appointed fiscal board overseeing its financial recovery have publicly said they plan to use federal money to directly pay bondholders. In fact, any such plan would have to be approved by Congress.

Damaged homes, protected by blue plastic tarps in a neighborhood east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 18, 2018, nine months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.Dennis M. Rivera / AP file

Puerto Rico’s ability to grant recovery contracts first came into question after island officials awarded a $300 million contract to Whitefish Energy, a Montana-based company, to repair Puerto Rico’s decimated electric grid. The bidding process came under scrutiny after it became clear that the company, which had just two employees, was not equipped to fix the collapsed electrical system that prompted the second-longest blackout in the world.

While Puerto Rico ended up canceling Whitefish Energy’s contract, the fiscal board overseeing the islands finances imposed stricter contract review policies for the future — requiring the Puerto Rican government to get approval from the board before awarding contracts of $10 million or more.

The federal government allocated $40 billion for disaster recovery in Puerto Rico, according to White House officials. But Puerto Rico incurred in at least $90 billion in damages, making it the third-costliest hurricane in the U.S. on record.

Though the administration has questioned Puerto Rico’s capacity to administer relief funds, a report from the Government Accountability Office revealed that the federal office within the Department of Housing and Urban Development that oversees disaster relief community development block grants had not implemented a plan to monitor these grants, which include $20 billion to Puerto Rico.

Federal government offices such as FEMA acknowledged agency failures in Puerto Rico in areas such as staffing and coordination in an ​after-action report​, while agencies like HUD allocated historic amounts of funding for the island in the area of housing, infrastructure and energy.

But most of the money, specifically funds for housing and infrastructure relief, have not made their way to communities in the island.

The White House comments have pushed some Democrats to demand changes to the Senate’s latest disaster aid package, backed mainly by Republicans, that would require the Trump administration to release already-allocated funds for Puerto Rico and other states that have faced natural disasters.

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Peter Alexander contributed.

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