clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump tried to illegally withhold disaster relief money from Puerto Rico

Trump’s handling of his one big external crisis remains terrifying.

President Trump Holds MAGA Rally In Las Vegas Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A Washington Post article on the resignation of deputy Housing and Urban Development Secretary Pam Patenaude, a housing policy professional who’s been de facto running the department under the vague auspices of Ben Carson, also contains the stunning information that President Trump attempted to illegally cut off federal disaster assistance to the island of Puerto Rico.

We already knew that in October, Trump tweeted — inaccurately — that the Puerto Rican government was planning to use disaster relief money to pay off old debts.

But the new report says Trump went beyond bad tweets and tried to base policy on this misapprehension, urging his team to violate the law and redirect the disaster assistance money to Texas and Florida instead:

Trump told then-White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and then-Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney that he did not want a single dollar going to Puerto Rico, because he thought the island was misusing the money and taking advantage of the government, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive internal deliberations. Instead, he wanted more of the money to go to Texas and Florida, the person said.

“POTUS was not consolable about this,” the person said.

Patenaude told White House budget officials during an early December meeting in the Situation Room that the money had been appropriated by Congress and must be sent, according to two people with direct knowledge of the meeting. She assured them that HUD had proper oversight of the funds.

This is shocking on its own terms, but many shocking things come to light in any given week of the Trump administration. Misconduct related to the handling of Hurricane Maria is, however, especially noteworthy because it stands at the intersection of all the major themes of his administration — incompetence, disregard for legal niceties, racial animus, and a Republican Party that’s completely abdicated its obligations of constitutional oversight.

Trump has only faced one really bad crisis, and he botched it

George W. Bush’s administration’s first term was defined by 9/11, and Barack Obama’s by the financial crisis. Trump has not faced a comparable dominant external challenge.

But Hurricane Maria — a punishing storm that hit an island with rickety infrastructure — is the closest he’s come, a problem that he did not cause and that any administration would struggle to handle. Trump did not just struggle with Maria; he failed miserably. To the best of our knowledge, thousands of people died due to the hurricane and months of ensuing blackouts. Trump’s only reaction has been to get angry at people who point out how bad it was.

Presidents have a range of formal and informal powers, and one of the most important informal ones is to convey to the bureaucracy and to second-tier political appointees what they think their priorities should be.

Trump has never, in any way, conveyed an interest in promoting recovery in Puerto Rico. What we learned Thursday is that he’s actually done the opposite — he demonstrated a personal desire, grounded in ignorance or racism or both, in making sure that help did not arrive on the island. That’s a catastrophe for the people directly affected, who are US citizens, but also an incredibly scary precedent for the rest of us.

The same congressional Republicans who managed to hold dozens of hearings on Benghazi never made any effort to find out what actually went wrong with the Hurricane Maria response or why. Now that Democrats are in the majority, that’s going to change, and there will finally be an investigation of the biggest tragedy of Trump’s time in office. Based on what we’ve learned today, that’s long overdue.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.