As Republicans struggle to show the American people they can effectively govern, they keep hitting a snag: President Trump, the supposed the standard-bearer for the GOP. So even as the House passed a bipartisan disaster relief package for Puerto Rico – a down payment, really – the press corps and lawmakers of all stripes were focused on Trump’s online threats to cut off emergency assistance to the island territory that’s still reeling from immense damage after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
…We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
“These are people who don’t look like him, these are people who don’t speak like him, and these are people who [largely are not part of] his party – so what do you call that?” Democrat Rep. Frederica Wilson tells Rolling Stone.
Many in the GOP are also frustrated by the insensitivity.
“It sends a terrible message,” Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo tells Rolling Stone. “We need to all be united to help our fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico. … In any way raising doubts about the aid and our work there is a mistake.”
The president seems fixated on Puerto Rico being insolvent and essentially having to file for bankruptcy. Those problems have only been exasperated by the storm: Now the government there can’t really collect tax revenue, and the treasury secretary says without federal assistance soon, the territory may endure a government shutdown by the end of the month. That’s why Curbelo and other Republicans are trying to get the president to stay focused on the immediate emergency and not Puerto Rico’s balance sheets.
“That’s not relevant at this time. We need to focus on getting the power back on, getting the water flowing,” Curbelo says. “And yes, Puerto Rico, at some point, will have to continue working on building a fiscally sustainable future.”
Other Republicans are giving the president the benefit of the doubt.
“The president has a unique way of trying to motivate people, and that was probably the intent behind his tweets, although it might not have been the perception,” Florida Republican Rep. Dennis Ross tells Rolling Stone.
On Thursday, the House overwhelmingly passed a relief package with a price tag of more than $35 billion to help victims in Puerto Rico and across the U.S., including those enduring the wildfires raging in California. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what this year’s staggering series of natural disasters is expected to cost.
House Speaker Paul Ryan is leading a congressional delegation to Puerto Rico Friday to examine some of the damage first-hand.
“There’s 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,” Ryan told reporters at the Capitol Thursday.
But Ryan also said he agrees with the president that the island needs to get its fiscal house in order.
“Yes, we need to make sure that Puerto Rico can begin to stand on its own two feet,” Ryan said. “They’ve already had tough fiscal problems to begin with. … We’ve got to do more to help Puerto Rico rebuild its own economy so that it can be self-sufficient.”
Other Republican lawmakers fear the president is stoking prejudice.
“[Trump’s tweet] gives the misguided sense to the American people that FEMA has been there forever. It just fuels that resentment that some people have towards Puerto Rico – they’re thinking that it’s not an island of Americans,” Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen tells Rolling Stone. “I think it’s misguided and feeds on that prejudice people have. So it’s lamentable.”
Ros-Lehtinen says this episode, and the recovery effort that is likely to take years, will be a part of Trump’s legacy. Whether that earns him a stain or a gold star on his record is up to him.
“He needs to rise up to the challenge of being president of the United States,” Ros-Lehtinen says. “He will guide how a lot of mainland Americans feel about Puerto Rico … then people will think, ‘That must be true because the president said it.’ So it’s not helpful.”