The president claims, with no evidence, that local officials want to use recovery money to pay down the U.S. territory’s sizeable debt
Although it has been more than a year since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, in parts of the U.S. territory, “it’s like the hurricane hit yesterday“—yet President Donald Trump wants to cut off recovery money, according to Axios, “because he claims, without evidence, that the island’s government is using federal disaster relief money to pay off debt.”
The unfounded claims about federal funds being misappropriated come from Trump’s misreading of an October Wall Street Journal article, multiple unnamed sources told Axios‘ Jonathan Swan.
A day after the Journal report was published, Trump falsely alleged on Twitter that the island’s “inept politicians are trying to use the massive and ridiculously high amounts of hurricane/disaster funding” to pay off Puerto Rico’s substantial debt.
The people of Puerto Rico are wonderful but the inept politicians are trying to use the massive and ridiculously high amounts of hurricane/disaster funding to pay off other obligations. The U.S. will NOT bail out long outstanding & unpaid obligations with hurricane relief money!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2018
While “Puerto Rico is expecting billions in disaster recovery aid to help rebuild from last year’s Hurricane Maria,” as Bloomberg pointed out after the president’s tweet, “neither the island’s leaders—nor the board installed by the U.S. to oversee its budget—are proposing using disaster recovery aid to directly pay off bondholders or other lenders, who have been squaring off in federal court and stand to recover a portion of their investments once the government emerges from bankruptcy.”
Some members of Congress and others, meanwhile, have called for canceling the island’s debt as a form of relief, noting that decades of U.S. policy that produced the debt crisis, and the federally-mandated austerity plan crafted in response to it is cruel, particularly after the devastation left by the hurricane.
In addition to Trump’s desire to block future funding for recovery from a storm that killed thousands of Americans, sources also revealed to Axios that the president wants “to claw back some of the federal money Congress has already set aside for Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery.”
Even though Trump can’t take back money Congress already has set aside for the commonwealth, he could refuse to sign off on future spending bills, which could notably impact the island’s already sluggish and widely criticized recovery process. So far, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports that more than $6 billion has been spent on Hurricane Maria relief, and the agency expects such spending to exceed $55 billion.
In contrast to federal Maria relief, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, “Congress approved $10 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency four days later, and another $50 billion six days later,” the New York Times reported earlier this year. “The federal government is still spending money on Katrina assistance, more than 12 years after the storm’s landfall.”
The Axios report elicited immediate outrage from Puerto Ricans and others. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz—a long-time critic of the Trump administration’s response to the storm—said in a pair of tweets, “[Trump] has never acknowledged his responsibility in the PR humanitarian crisis; 3000+ died on his watch. We remind the Pres the ‘help’ you say will not come is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. You are violating our human right by denying us what we need.”