Nine days after Puerto Rico was decimated by the strongest hurricane to hit the island in 80 years, President Donald Trump said Friday that the U.S. territory will have to “work with us” to figure out how to both rebuild and address its debt problem.
This them-and-us language was starkly different from statements of solidarity the president made in response to the hurricanes that damaged large swaths of Texas and Florida, in which he didn’t mince words about getting relief efforts and money into the storm-ravaged regions.
Trump had already been criticized for his response to Hurricane Maria, which blew through the eastern Caribbean last week. The storm inflicting massive damage to the U.S. Virgin Islands, home to about 100,000 U.S. citizens, and Puerto Rico, the largest U.S. territory with a population of 3.5 million U.S. citizens, equal to Alaska, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Vermont combined.
While the island’s resident languished without electricity, food, water, gasoline or access to medical care in the hours after the storm, Trump was busy tweeting about NFL players’ allegedly disrespecting the troops, the flag and the national anthem by kneeling during the national anthem.
Earlier this week facing a backlash over his response to the storm, Trump made things worse by saying Puerto Rico is “sitting in the middle of the ocean.” (Puerto Rico is in Caribbean Sea, about a two-hour flight away from Miami.) On Friday, he not only reiterated this point, saying Puerto Rico was “surrounded by water, big water, ocean water,” but also tied Puerto Rico’s rebuilding efforts to its debt. Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce was quick to point out the double standard when it came to problems on American lands.
TEXAS: We will rebuild!
Florida: We will rebuild!
Puerto Rico: There's a big ocean. Terrible infrastructure. So much debt. Unfair media!
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) September 29, 2017
“Ultimately, the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort, [which] will end up being one of the biggest ever, will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” Trump said during a speech about tax reform.
Indeed, Puerto Rico’s financial situation was dire before Hurricane Maria. The island debt nearly doubled since 2004 thanks in part to what many consider predatory lending practices from the bond market.
Trump, in speech, explaining Puerto Rico difficulties: "This is an ISLAND, surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water." — Daniel Dale (@ddale8) September 29, 2017
The island owes about $70 billion through numerous local issuers, but it’s prohibits from the Chapter 9 restructuring available to U.S. states and municipalities. Currently Puerto Rico and U.S. hedge funds are battling in courts over when and how to pay them.