Call it Donald Trump’s second wall, only this time the president’s target is not migrants coming north but dollars going south to help storm-tossed Puerto Rico.
Additional food aid for the island’s poor will soon be exhausted without supplemental funds opposed by the White House. At the same time, billions in community development appropriations have yet to leave Washington — a year after being approved by Congress to assist in the recovery from Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
Next to the government shutdown and bitter fight over immigration policy, Puerto Rico’s plight remains an afterthought to many in Washington. But the big common denominator is Trump’s high profile and the fact that low-income, often Hispanic or Latino families are feeling the crunch — even as U.S. citizens.
Republicans wince; Democrats seethe.
“The territories have long been treated badly, like they’re not part of the American family,” said Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), who was born in Puerto Rico. “But Trump takes it to a new level of meanness.”
Beyond dollars and cents, two explanations are offered for the president’s stance.
One is his fixation on Puerto Rico’s substantial debt and the notion that bond holders will profit from disaster aid. The second goes to the rawer stuff of Florida politics—a state important to Trump’s base and the site of closely-fought elections this past year.
In an October tweet, the president triggered an outcry when he accused Puerto Rico’s “inept” leaders of trying to use “the massive and ridiculously high” amounts of disaster aid to pay off the commonwealth’s crippling debts. Independent observers said there was no factual basis for the president’s claim. Puerto Rico’s advocates were baffled further since Treasury Secretary Steven Muchin had been counted as an ally for the island in working through some aid issues.
Nonetheless, when the White House was asked this week if this was still the president’s mindset, there was no backing down. “I refer you back to the President’s tweet. Beyond that we will not be commenting,” a spokesperson said.
What’s certain is the administration explicitly warned Senate Democrats in advance that the president would not tolerate anything more for Puerto Rico in a disaster aid bill now pending in Congress. And when the White House opted to include $12.7 billion in disaster aid as a carrot for its border wall funding bill, it first took the scalpel to all of about $1.3 billion in new disaster aid for Puerto Rico proposed by the House Appropriations Committee.
Yet bigger than Trump’s Puerto Rico bonds fixation, some say, is Florida politics.
By this account, the president remains furious with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello for backing Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) who only narrowly lost to Trump’s choice, Republican challenger, former Gov. Rick Scott.
“The driver of the new heightened toxicity is the election, is Rossello endorsing Bill Nelson,” said one close observer. “That was it. You have a president basically going at it like we were in a Third World country.”