clock menu more-arrow no yes

Why the White House is attacking Democrats for traveling to Puerto Rico, explained

With some help from Fox News.

Fox News

President Donald Trump on Monday attacked roughly 30 House and Senate Democrats for traveling to Puerto Rico over the weekend amid a partial government shutdown, even though they were there to highlight an entirely different crisis — recovery from Hurricane Maria.

“I’ve been here all weekend. A lot of Democrats were in Puerto Rico celebrating something,” Trump said, before flying to New Orleans to attend the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention. “I don’t know, maybe they’re celebrating the shutdown.”

Press secretary Sarah Sanders, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley all also attacked Democrats for making the trip.

On the House floor on Thursday, a Republican member of Congress yelled “go back to Puerto Rico!” at Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) while he was speaking. Cardenas is chair of Bold PAC, which serves as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s fundraising arm and organized the trip to Puerto Rico.

Without naming names, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) later chided whoever shouted at Cardenas, saying, “I would hope that we could refrain from any implications which have any undertones of prejudice or racism or any kind of ‘ism’ that would diminish the character and integrity of one of our fellow members.”

During an interview on Saturday with Trump, Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro falsely claimed that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “in Puerto Rico with a bunch of Democrats and lobbyists enjoying the sun and partying down there.” But Pelosi did not in fact make the trip, and Pirro later apologized for saying otherwise.

The 30 or so Democrats who went to Puerto Rico were not there to “celebrate” anything, however. They were there to focus on recovery from Hurricane Maria, which hit the island in September 2017 as a Category 4 storm, inflicted $90 billion in damage on the island, and killed 2,975 people, according to the Puerto Rican government.

What Democrats were doing in Puerto Rico

The trip was intended to educate lawmakers about the ongoing post-Hurricane Maria recovery effort, and featured a roundtable discussion between lawmakers and local officials.

The Washington Post provided some details about the trip:

According to members who participated, the three-day event featured informational sessions on the damage from the 2017 hurricane, meetings with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, presentations on the controversial oversight board created to meet the island’s bond obligations, and information on how residents of territories can’t access many of the government services available to residents of the 50 states.

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA), the chair of Bold PAC, told CBS that Hurricane Maria was “more devastating than many of us realized.” Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA), another lawmaker who made the trip, told the Washington Post, “What I saw was an island that still needs a lot of help. ... A lot of the preexisting challenges here were exacerbated by the hurricane.”

The trip also included lobbyists and executives from well-known companies, including “R.J. Reynolds, Facebook, Comcast, Amazon, PhRMA, Microsoft, Intel, Verizon, and unions like the National Education Association,” according to Fox News.

As part of the trip, some members of Congress attended a special performance of Hamilton that Lin-Manuel Miranda brought to the island to help raise money for relief efforts. But members paid for their own tickets, which ran about $500.

According to a memo the Washington Examiner obtained, Bold PAC chose to have this year’s retreat in Puerto Rico “to send a strong message that there is still much work to be done in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria”:

Bold PAC via the Washington Examiner

There’s irony in Trump hitting Democrats for highlighting the devastation in Puerto Rico

Despite the death and destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria, Trump has referred to the federal government’s response as an “incredible, unsung success.” He has tried to downplay damage wrought by the storms with false claims like, “The electricity was broken before the storms.” The president has also made baseless insinuations that the mayor of San Juan — Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been sharply critical of the president — did something illegal with supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general, decried the White House’s attacks on members of Congress who traveled with him to Puerto Rico over the weekend.

Katyal’s comment about “our paper-towel President” refers to Trump tossing rolls of toilet paper into a crowd during a brief trip he took to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

Last September, Trump publicly questioned the validity of a study that found nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the storm, saying during a radio interview:

After I left, it was 16 people that died. The 16 people was then lifted a couple of months later to 64 and that was the official number. And then all of a sudden, I read a report, many, many months later — a long time later — that they did a report that 3,000 people died. And I was like, “Wait a minute, you went from 16 people to 64. We did a great job, and then you went from 64 to 3,000. How did that happen?” And they couldn’t explain it. If you read that report, it’s not explainable.

What Trump doesn’t seem to grasp is that official death tolls include not only people who died directly as a result of the storm but also indirect deaths due to factors like not being able to obtain medical care.

For Trump, it’s about shifting blame on the shutdown

The White House is trying to criticize Democrats for not doing more to end the government shutdown, but it’s actually Trump who refuses to budge on reopening the government until he gets funding for his border wall.

Aside from caving to Trump’s demands, it’s unclear what else Democrats can do at this point. Trump stormed out of a meeting with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer last week, after Pelosi indicated she’s still not interested in allocating money for Trump’s wall. His strategy since then has been to tweet about how much time he’s spending in the White House.

In a statement published by Fox News, Rep. Cardenas said he and other people making the trip “will be closely monitoring the situation in Washington. ... If there is any progress by Senate Republicans or the White House to reopen the federal government, then we will act accordingly.”

The White House’s efforts to shift blame for the shutdown to Democrats has not been successful so far. As Amanda Sakuma wrote for Vox on Sunday, new polling shows that “more than half of Americans (53 percent) say the president and his party should shoulder most of the blame for the closures; another 29 percent point their finger at Democrats in Congress. Just 13 percent of Americans say both sides should be held accountable as the shutdown continues to drag on.”

Instead, Trump seems more interested in live-tweeting Monday morning’s episode of Fox & Friends, in which a photo of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) hanging out on a beach in Puerto Rico aired no fewer than 14 times throughout the show.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.