Pres­i­dent threat­ens to halt aid for Puerto Rico

Res­i­dents, of­fi­cials are out­raged as U.S. ter­ri­tory re­mains in cri­sis

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP RUCKER, ARELIS R. HERNÁNDEZ AND MANUEL ROIG- FRANZIA

Pres­i­dent Trump served no­tice Thurs­day that he may with­draw fed­eral re­lief work­ers from Puerto Rico and blamed the is­land for its fail­ing in­fra­struc­ture, ef­fec­tively threat­en­ing to aban­don the U.S. ter­ri­tory amid a stag­ger­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in the af­ter­math of twin hur­ri­canes.

Un­der with­er­ing crit­i­cism from Puerto Ri­cans for his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s flawed re­sponse to the dev­as­ta­tion there, Trump sought to hold the ter­ri­tory re­spon­si­ble for its own plight be­cause of chronic mis­man­age­ment — prompt­ing an im­me­di­ate back­lash from Puerto Ri­cans and main­land law­mak­ers in both par­ties.

More than a month af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma swept ashore and three weeks af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria de­liv­ered a crush­ing blow, much of Puerto Rico re­mains with­out power, and many of its

3.4 mil­lion res­i­dents still are strug­gling to find clean water, hospi­tals are short on medicine, com­merce is slow, and ba­sic ser­vices are un­avail­able.

In a trio of Thurs­day morn­ing tweets, Trump de­clared, “Elec­tric and all in­fra­struc­ture [in Puerto Rico] was dis­as­ter be­fore hur­ri­canes.” He said it would be up to Con­gress how much fed­eral money to ap­pro­pri­ate for re­cov­ery ef­forts there — and, in an ex­tra­or­di­nary state­ment by an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, warned that re­lief work­ers would not stay “for­ever.”

“We can­not keep FEMA, the Mil­i­tary & the First Re­spon­ders, who have been amaz­ing (un­der the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances) in P.R. for­ever!” Trump tweeted.

And he quoted Sharyl At­tkisson, a tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist with Sin­clair Broad­cast­ing Group, as say­ing, “Puerto Rico sur­vived the Hur­ri­canes, now a fi­nan­cial cri­sis looms largely of their own mak­ing.”

Crit­ics con­trasted Trump’s com­ments about Puerto Rico and its lead­ers — dur­ing a visit there last week, he com­plained that the re­cov­ery had “thrown our bud­get a lit­tle out of whack” — with the em­pa­thy he showed af­ter storms rav­aged Texas, Louisiana and Flor­ida.

On the is­land, res­i­dents and elected of­fi­cials re­sponded to Trump’s Thurs­day tweets with out­rage and dis­be­lief. Ra­dio disc jock­eys gasped as they read aloud the pres­i­den­tial state­ments, while po­lit­i­cal lead­ers charged that he lacked em­pa­thy and pleaded for help from fel­low U.S. ci­ti­zens on the main­land.

“The U.S. ci­ti­zens in Puerto Rico are re­quest­ing the sup­port that any of our fel­low ci­ti­zens would re­ceive across our Na­tion,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ri­cardo Ros­selló, who has pub­licly praised Trump’s han­dling of the cri­sis, tweeted in ap­par­ent re­sponse to the pres­i­dent.

Car­men Yulín Cruz, the mayor of Puerto Rico’s cap­i­tal, San Juan, who has been feud­ing pub­licly with Trump, strongly con­demned the pres­i­dent’s tweets. In a tweet of her own, she de­rided him as a “Hater in Chief.” And she said in a state­ment that he “is sim­ply in­ca­pable of un­der­stand­ing the con­tri­bu­tions, the sac­ri­fices and the com­mit­ment to demo­cratic val­ues that Puerto Ri­cans have shown over decades.”

Trump has been roundly crit­i­cized for his seem­ing re­luc­tance to come to Puerto Rico’s aid. Dur­ing last week’s visit to San Juan, the pres­i­dent tossed rolls of pa­per tow­els at res­i­dents as if shoot­ing bas­kets. He also noted that the death toll was lower than the “real catas­tro­phe” of 2005’s Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina.

To many Puerto Ri­cans, Trump’s Thurs­day com­ments stung and helped un­der­score their feel­ing that the pres­i­dent does not view them as de­serv­ing the same level of as­sis­tance as main­land U.S. ci­ti­zens.

“We are the same kind of ci­ti­zens as those in Texas and New York,” Joan Figueroa, a 44year-old homemaker, said as she waited for sev­eral serv­ings of rice to take to bedrid­den el­derly neigh­bors in her apart­ment com­plex on the edge of San Juan.

“He wouldn’t say what he’s said if the dis­as­ter was there,” Figueroa said. “We de­pend on the fed­eral govern­ment be­cause our govern­ment can’t han­dle it. But we will rise up with or with­out Trump.”

On a bus headed for the crowded and swel­ter­ing San Juan air­port, Is­abel Cruz and Ra­mon Nieves — a mar­ried cou­ple who lived much of their adult lives in New Jer­sey but re­tired in Puerto Rico, the is­land of their births — sat in a mid­dle row rat­tling off sev­eral of Trump’s tweets al­most word for word in voices that dripped with dis­dain.

“He doesn’t think of us as Amer­i­cans,” said Nieves, 71.

“It’s not just that,” Cruz, 78, said. “He’s racist.”

That last word, “racist,” she said slowly and em­phat­i­cally. Then she re­peated it for em­pha­sis.

In Wash­ing­ton, Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials sought Thurs­day to re­as­sure Puerto Ri­cans that the U.S. govern­ment re­mained fully com­mit­ted to the ter­ri­tory’s long-term re­cov­ery, de­spite the pres­i­dent’s tweets.

Stand­ing be­side Trump at a White House event in which she was for­mally nom­i­nated to be sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity, Kirst­jen Nielsen ad­dressed longterm hur­ri­cane re­cov­ery ef­forts.

“I also know that this re­build­ing will take years, and I want to echo what the pres­i­dent has said many times: We will re­main fully en­gaged in the long re­cov­ery ef­fort ahead of us,” said Nielsen, cur­rently the deputy White House chief of staff.

John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, sim­i­larly told re­porters that “our coun­try will stand with those Amer­i­can ci­ti­zens in Puerto Rico un­til the job is done.” Asked whether Trump con­sid­ers Puerto Ri­cans to be U.S. ci­ti­zens, Kelly said he did.

Kelly, who said he spoke with Ros­selló ear­lier in the day, said Trump’s tweets were meant to com­mu­ni­cate his hope that Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency work­ers and the mil­i­tary could with­draw and hand off ef­forts to the Puerto Ri­can govern­ment “sooner rather than later.”

“They’re not go­ing to be there for­ever,” Kelly said. “The whole point is to start to work your­self out of a job, and then tran­si­tion to the re­build­ing process.”

John Rabin, a top FEMA of­fi­cial in­volved in the re­sponse to Hur­ri­cane Maria, said in an in­ter­view that “as Puerto Rico needs as­sis­tance from the fed­eral govern­ment, we’re there to pro­vide it.”

“Ev­ery­body that’s work­ing in FEMA, ev­ery­body that’s there in Puerto Rico, is fo­cused on help­ing Puerto Rico re­spond and re­cover, and that’s what we’re go­ing to fo­cus on,” said Rabin, the act­ing re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tor for FEMA Re­gion 2, which over­sees Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and New York and New Jer­sey.

Fed­eral re­cov­ery and re­build­ing ef­forts from past storms — such as Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, which dev­as­tated New Or­leans and sur­round­ing ar­eas in 2005 — have lasted months and in some cases years.

But White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said, “Suc­cess­ful re­cov­er­ies do not last for­ever; they should be as swift as pos­si­ble to help peo­ple re­sume their nor­mal lives.”

Trump’s threats to limit the emer­gency-worker foot­print in Puerto Rico come as the House voted Thurs­day by an over­whelm­ing mar­gin, 353 to 69, to pass a $36.5 bil­lion dis­as­ter aid pack­age that in­cludes pro­vi­sions to avert a po­ten­tial cash cri­sis in Puerto Rico prompted by Maria. The Sen­ate is ex­pected to take up the mea­sure next week.

Ros­selló warned con­gres­sional lead­ers over the week­end that the U.S. ter­ri­tory is “on the brink of a mas­sive liq­uid­ity cri­sis that will in­ten­sify in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture.” The leg­is­la­tion that passed the House al­lows up to $4.9 bil­lion in di­rect loans to lo­cal gov­ern­ments in a bid to ease Puerto Rico’s fi­nan­cial crunch. With­out con­gres­sional ac­tion, the ter­ri­tory may not be able to make its pay­roll or pay ven­dors by the end of the month.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said that Puerto Rico must even­tu­ally “stand on its own two feet.” But, he said, “at the mo­ment there is a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis that has to be at­tended to, and this is an area where the fed­eral govern­ment has a re­spon­si­bil­ity, and we’re act­ing on it.”

Top Democrats as­sailed Trump for his Thurs­day tweets on Puerto Rico. House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called them “heart­break­ing,” adding that “we are all Amer­i­cans, and we owe them what they need.”

Sen­ate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted: “There is still dev­as­ta­tion, Amer­i­cans are still dy­ing. FEMA needs to stay un­til the job is done.”

An­other New York Demo­crat, Rep. Ny­dia M. Velázquez, who was born in Puerto Rico, said in a state­ment that the pres­i­dent’s “most solemn duty is to pro­tect the safety and the se­cu­rity of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. By sug­gest­ing he might ab­di­cate this re­spon­si­bil­ity for our fel­low ci­ti­zens in Puerto Rico, Mr. Trump has called into ques­tion his abil­ity to lead.”

On Thurs­day morn­ing in San Juan, Jose Vazquez was lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio when the pro­gram­ming was in­ter­rupted by a spe­cial re­port. An ex­as­per­ated an­nouncer read Trump’s tweets about emer­gency work­ers not be­ing in Puerto Rico “for­ever.”

The other disc jock­eys gasped in dis­be­lief. Vazquez couldn’t be­lieve it ei­ther, he said — and paused. Well, ac­tu­ally, he could. “We don’t want them here for­ever,” Vazquez, 35, said. “We need them un­til Puerto Rico nor­mal­izes. If they can leave soon, great. That would mean we are closer to a full re­cov­ery.”

But Vazquez, who was wait­ing out­side the Puerto Rico coli­seum to pick up free meals to de­liver to el­derly pub­lic hous­ing res­i­dents, said: “FEMA is not a gift. It’s in­sur­ance we pay for.

“It’s their duty to re­spond,” he said. “And we re­ally need the help.” Rucker re­ported from Wash­ing­ton, and Hernández and Roig-Franzia re­ported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ed O’Keefe, Joel Achen­bach and Mike DeBo­nis in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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