Trump tries to turn Puerto Rico into a culture-war battle — and Senate Republicans play along

Trump's mean-spirited personal war with Puerto Rico endangers hurricane relief. As usual, Republicans can't say no

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published April 3, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell; Donald Trump; Lindsey Graham (AP/Getty/Salon)
Mitch McConnell; Donald Trump; Lindsey Graham (AP/Getty/Salon)

After President Trump's theater-of-the-absurd, paper-towel-tossing visit to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, Republicans in Florida -- which is home to more than 1 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rican origin -- swept nearly every statewide office in the 2018 midterms. The state’s victorious GOP gubernatorial and senatorial candidates, Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott, distanced themselves from the president when he denied Maria’s catastrophic death toll weeks before the election, but both campaigned with him in the days leading up to Election Day.

Since then, Trump has ratcheted up his disdainful rhetoric against the island’s political leadership, refused to meet with Puerto Rico’s governor, failed to mention recovery efforts during his State of the Union, and attempted to divert Puerto Rico’s federal aid to build his border wall. As one senior Republican aide in Congress recently told the Washington Post, “Trump brought the issue up unprompted at a meeting with senators last Tuesday on Capitol Hill and has repeatedly emphasized to senators that he doesn’t want additional aid going to the island.” On Monday, Senate Republicans failed to pass two bills meant to do just that.

Republicans in the Senate voted down a $14.2 billion emergency aid package for victims of hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters passed by the Democratic-held House, which would have put an additional $700 million toward rebuilding Puerto Rico and $600 million to fund the food stamp program on the island.  (For reference on the delayed recovery efforts, Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. The town of Culebra did not recover full power until March 20 of this year. Many small towns on the island still have no power or rely on FEMA generators.)

Instead, Republicans offered an alternative bill that respected Trump’s opposition to sending any additional aid to Puerto Rico, allowing only for additional food stamp funding at the behest of  the aforementioned Sen. Rick Scott, who narrowly won election last November. The GOP-held Senate failed, however, to advance either disaster relief plan.

So Senate Republicans have managed to leave disaster-stricken citizens in California, Iowa and Georgia without federal relief because the president doesn’t want to help Puerto Ricans any further. Trump pointed to “incompetence” by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz — rather than overspending by government contractors with suspicious ties to former Trump Cabinet members — to suggest this week that Puerto Ricans “only take from USA” and that Democrats now “want to give them more, taking dollars away from our Farmers.” The callousness with which Senate Republicans have responded to Trump’s outright appeal to racism appears to be part of a political strategy to keep control of the chamber following the 2020 election.

“This is no time for our colleagues across the aisle to prioritize a political fight with the president ahead of the urgent needs of communities across our country,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Monday. Appearing on Fox News on Tuesday, Sen. Scott of Florida blamed Democrats for rejecting the GOP’s bill because they found funding for Puerto Rico was inadequate.

Republicans appear poised to hit Democrats for holding up aid to presidential swing states in the Midwest, like Iowa, which will hold the first caucus of the Democratic primaries. As CNBC’s Jacob Pramuk explained, the bill would also provide "relief for hurricane damage in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia — all states that could host competitive presidential and Senate contests next year." Republicans currently hold a 53-47 edge in the Senate, but must defend 22 of those seats next year, while Democrats will defend only 12.

Playing politics with disaster relief is hardly a new game for Republicans (recall the controversy surrounding Hurricane Sandy relief efforts). But with Trump showing no qualms about suggesting diverting billions from the military to pay for his wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, Democrats should have little trouble deflecting incoming GOP fire in this particular battle.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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