Donald Trump has made his animus towards the island of Puerto Rico no secret. The president has repeatedly objected to the amount of federal disaster aid spent to help the American citizens there recover from the hurricanes that have ravaged their home.
But while the president has begrudgingly signed legislation to send billions of dollars to Puerto Rico, he has also privately tried to add conditions to that support. According to three people with direct knowledge of the discussions, Trump has pushed administration officials to tie hurricane relief funding to Puerto Rico to reforms the government there takes to crack down on public corruption.
“This was one of the things he was fairly precise and articulate on... If they are asking for this many billions of dollars and you are saying it is exponentially more than ever, he said, and this is a quote, ‘We should tie it to legislation with anti-corruption measures,’” said a former senior Trump administration official.
The ex-official said it was not clear why the idea of conditioning Puerto Rico aid didn’t seem to go anywhere. But Trump, this former official added, “was passionately consistent on this topic.”
Trump’s desire to tie disaster relief aid to anti-corruption measures in Puerto Rico could end up becoming relevant again as the archipelago has just braced for another storm season. Though Hurricane Dorian only grazed Puerto Rico as it made its way towards the eastern seaboard of the United States this week, its path previously had the island taking a direct hit, prompting Trump to complain publicly about corruption and his own personal grievances.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.
There are traditionally three buckets of disaster relief. The first is direct financial assistance for those who don’t have insurance. The second is resources to state and local municipalities to increase services right after a storm. And the third is for long-term recovery and preparedness.
Experts say that it is not uncommon for conditions to be added to that third tranche. But those conditions are explicitly about improving the resilience of certain communities to future events. And those who have worked in the field before say it would be counterproductive if not unethical to tie disaster funds to alternate political objectives.
“I think that if you are predicating providing assistance to people who are U.S. citizens based off of some sort of political belief, that’s wrong,” said Peter Boogaard, who served as the Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Secretary under President Barack Obama. “When someone's house is on fire or a tree has landed on it, you should put out the fire and help those people immediately. Structural political changes should not be a condition for disaster assistance.”
For Trump, however, Puerto Rico has been an object of years-long scorn. He has publicly feuded with the mayor of San Juan, and one former White House official recalled Trump complaining about how corruption on the island (including as it pertained to aid money) was even more egregious than it is in Democratic-controlled cities, which Trump also routinely trashes. In that context, the ability to leverage disaster aid for political reform has proven appetizing. The president has talked about making these demands as far back as late 2017, sources noted, and continued to internally push for these types of conditions for Puerto Rico relief well into this year.
Michael Caputo, a former Trump adviser who is in Puerto Rico working with The Attenure Group on recovery efforts, said in a brief interview this week that he agrees with the president on this, and that “corruption is often more destructive than hurricanes.” Caputo added that he has talked about this kind of conditional aid during conversations with Puerto Rican politicians who wanted to understand what they should expect from Trump.
“This summer, leaders in Puerto Rico talked [to me] about President Trump wanting aid tied to reform as a reality, not a concept,” he said. “When they asked, I didn’t disabuse them of the notion. Instead, I told them they can expect this kind of initiative from the Trump White House.”
On Capitol Hill, however, many hold less sanguine views on Trump’s approach to Puerto Rico. Democratic lawmakers have spent the past two years criticizing the president for exacerbating the island’s suffering through the administration’s management of the relief efforts there and they have launched oversight investigations into those efforts. But the oversight has been met with stonewalling, they say.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who chairs the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on government operations, told The Daily Beast earlier this year that he had yet to see key documents on Trump’s response to the hurricanes.
“This is not an academic exercise,” Connolly said. “People lost their lives.”