After three years of blocking disaster aid bills and disparaging Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump on Friday reversed course and enthusiastically announced the release of $13 billion in funding that Congress had already approved for the island’s reconstruction following the damage from Hurricane Maria.
“I have to say in a very nice way, very respectful way: I’m the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico. Nobody even close,” he said during a press conference on Friday afternoon.
Trump’s shift in attitude toward the island came days after his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, announced a comprehensive plan for Puerto Rico’s recovery, and less than 50 days before the presidential election.
Biden announced his plan while visiting Florida — where close to 1 million Puerto Ricans live, many of them survivors of the 2017 hurricane who were forced to flee the conditions on the island. Florida is a pivotal swing state in the election, and Latino voters there have the potential to decide who wins it. Biden is currently slightly ahead of Trump in the state — though Hillary Clinton was, too, and Trump went on to win it by a margin of 1.2%.
The $13 billion package Trump announced, which includes $9.6 billion to go toward repairing the island’s electrical grid, is part of the funding already approved by Congress and allocated for Puerto Rico, not a new source of disaster aid.
So far, the island has received around $16.8 billion in total from the federal government since the hurricane, with $45.9 billion being the total amount they’re slated to receive. That amount still falls far short of the $94 billion Puerto Rican authorities estimated would be required to rebuild the island, including $17.7 billion total to rebuild the grid to standards that would make it capable of resisting another storm.
Puerto Rico’s electrical grid has been in tatters since the hurricane brought it down entirely in September 2017. Though parts of it have been repaired to their original condition, it remains unstable and residents frequently deal with power outages when storms far weaker than hurricanes pass over the island. The rest of the island’s infrastructure has also struggled to recover, between the shortfall in federal aid and austerity measures imposed by the federally appointed fiscal control board that oversees the island’s finances.
The president blamed Democrats for the holdups in funding.
“We’ve been working on it a long time to get it passed, very tough to get things passed. Democrats where they don’t want to see this happen and they probably certainly didn’t want to see it happen at this point,” he said at the press conference. “But it’s a big package, it’s a great package.”
That position contradicts what Trump has said about the island for years. Trump’s immediate response to Hurricane Maria, during his first visit after the storm in October 2017, was to say that the hurricane wasn’t a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina. He went on to deny the scale of the disaster multiple times and has never acknowledged that at least 3,000 Puerto Ricans died as a result of the storm and the lack of emergency assistance available to them.
Trump claimed the death toll had been faked, “done by the Democrats to make me look as bad as possible.”
When Puerto Ricans began to run out of food stamp funds during the federal government shutdown in 2018, Trump personally blocked funding that would have alleviated the situation.
Trump has also repeated the false claim that the island got $91 billion for the hurricane and should not get more disaster funding.
“Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane, more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before, & all their local politicians do is complain & ask for more money. The pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA,” he tweeted last April.
At that stage, the island had received about $11 billion out of $41 billion in total federal funds allocated to its recovery.
The figure Trump repeats is close to the $94 billion that then-governor Ricardo Rosselló estimated in November 2017 as what would be needed for the island’s full recovery plan, not the amount the island has received from the federal government.
Trump has also repeated a false claim that the federal government has spent more on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria than any other storm in history. The federal government spent around $120 billion in total recovery funding after Hurricane Katrina.
During Friday’s press briefing, a reporter asked Trump about his previous statements that he didn’t support giving Puerto Rico any further aid and that the island is corrupt.
He responded that he now supports this additional aid because he sees an opportunity to boost the medical, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing industries on the island — all of which have suffered as the fallout of the hurricane continued.
“Puerto Rico has been very corrupt in terms of its politicians, you see that. One after another, it’s been unbelievably corrupt. And we are studying that and working on that, and we think we have a good group of people who are working very well with politicians right now,” Trump continued. He did not specify what group of people he was referring to.
“Their generators are wiped out, and they’ve been wiped out for years, long before Maria came. They’ve been wiped out for years,” Trump said.
While the grid was antiquated well before Maria, it was not “wiped out” until the hurricane hit.
“So if we can build Puerto Rico back into a pharmaceutical manufacturing area. We are going to designate it as such, I think it will be unbelievable, Puerto Rico, unbelievable for the people of Puerto Rico,” he said.
“Three years ago Puerto Rico was in shambles yet Donald Trump didn’t care about the millions of American citizens without electricity, without potable water, food to eat or a roof over their heads. Some of my fellow Puerto Ricans are still using blue tarps to keep their homes covered, and way too many still don’t have power around the clock, all because President Trump refused to provide the aid Puerto Rico needed at the time; the island was too “dirty” and the people too “poor” for him to care,” said Biden for President Latino advisor Tatiana Matta, in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
“Now that we’re a month and a half from an election where Puerto Ricans can decide the election in key states like Florida and Pennsylvania, President Trump all of a sudden appears to care. But President Trump can’t fool us, today’s announcement is nothing new and certainly not something that he can take credit for,” she said.