In the months after Hurricane Maria, which killed an estimated 2,975 people in Puerto Rico, the island’s Democratic governor abstained from joining the local chorus lashing President Trump over what they see as a botched federal response. But that fragile alliance has disintegrated, as Trump increasingly insists that aid to the island be cut off, a demand he reiterated to Senate Republicans on Tuesday.
In his strongest rebuke yet of the president, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló late on Tuesday called Trump’s comments “below the dignity of a sitting president” and “irresponsible, regrettable and, above all, unjustified,” while suggesting Trump has dodged meeting him.
“I invite the president to stop listening to ignorant and completely wrong advice,” Rosselló said in a statement. “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.”
Rosselló‘s stinging commentary is likely to exacerbate deep-seated arguments about who deserves federal aid in an administration that has turned disaster relief into red-meat political fodder.
While FEMA admitted to widespread failures after Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September 2017, Trump has insisted his administration “did a fantastic job” and criticized the island’s requests for billions to rebuild.
In January, he said he would reject $600 million in food stamps for Puerto Ricans and asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look into diverting some of its $13.9 billion in emergency funds for the island to pay for his border wall. One senior administration official recently told the Washington Post that Trump’s stance is that “he doesn’t want another single dollar going to the island.”
In a closed-door lunch with Senate Republicans on Tuesday, Trump complained that Puerto Rico was getting $91 billion in aid, which dwarfed the disaster relief budgeted for red states like Texas and South Carolina. But that figure is far more than Puerto Rico has actually received, the Post’s Philip Bump reported, and it’s not clear where Trump got the number.
Rosselló suggested that Trump was getting bad data and urged him to meet in person to talk.
“I can only assume that Trump is receiving misleading information from his own staff,” the governor said. “I have now made several requests to meet with the president to discuss Puerto Rico’s recovery and reconstruction, but up to this day we haven’t received a confirmation or a date, even though Trump told me we would meet after his visit to Vietnam earlier this year.”
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Rosselló’s claims. On Tuesday, a White House spokesman, Judd Deere, insisted Trump was committed to helping Puerto Rico, but also noted that “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 also took issue with allegations that disaster relief has been diverted to help pay off the island’s crippling debt.
“I want to be very clear: Not a single federal dollar has been used to make debt payments,” he said. “This has been the most transparent recovery in the history of the United States, providing unprecedented access and collaboration with federal agencies.”
The governor has used FEMA’s shaky response to Maria to make a renewed push for Puerto Rican statehood, a theme he struck again in his response to Trump. Without a full say in American politics, Puerto Ricans will always get short shrift in disaster response, he argued.
“The world knows the unpleasant truth that Puerto Rico is a colonial territory of the United States and are well aware of the democratic deficiencies we endure: We are not allowed to vote for our president nor have voting representation in Congress,” he said. “The federal response and its treatment during these past months in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is clear evidence of our second-class citizenship.”
Trump’s public reluctance to send more money to the island has now launched an official probe. On Tuesday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development told Congress that its inspector general is investigating whether the Trump administration has actively interfered with disaster aid to Puerto Rico.
Rosselló closed his statement by insisting that his only request to Trump was for equal treatment.
“We are not your political adversaries; we are your citizens,” he said. “We are not asking for anything more than any other U.S. state has received. We are merely asking for equality.”