During an instantly infamous Tuesday press conference in Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump suggested the disaster on the island after Hurricane Maria was minimal compared to a “real catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina” and complained about the cost of the recovery efforts.
“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” Trump said.
Just a few minutes later in the press conference, he began talking about how he was happy to spend “hundreds of millions” on the F-35 — a warplane that has yet to fly in a single American combat mission.
“So amazing, we are ordering hundreds of millions of dollars of new airplanes for the Air Force, especially the F-35,” Trump told an Air Force officer who was attending the press conference. “You like the F-35? ... You can't see it. You literally can't see it. It's hard to fight a plane you can't see.”
It’s not clear what the president means when he says, “You literally can’t see it.” The F-35 is not invisible like Wonder Woman’s jet; the plane is designed to strike targets from beyond their visible range, but so are all other modern fighter aircraft.
But more importantly, there’s something deeply uncomfortable about bemoaning the price tag of Puerto Rico’s recovery and then praising one of the most expensive technological boondoggles in the history of the US military.
This becomes especially painful when you compare numbers.
The Trump administration has yet to submit a new request for emergency funding to help Puerto Rico, but one is coming later this month. Politico reports that the request is likely to be somewhere between $10 billion and $15 billion. Trump’s proposed defense budget, released in May, requested $10.5 billion in spending on the F-35 project.
That means that Trump is asking for roughly as much money this year for the F-35 — a plane that, again, has never flown a combat mission — as for the vital, lifesaving Puerto Rico recovery effort. Yet he is complaining about the price tag of the latter and bragging about how much he plans to spend on the former.
This is even more uncomfortable if you look at the historical price tag of the F-35. The amount of money the US has already invested in this dubious plan is, as the Atlantic’s James Fallows points out in an excellent essay on the state of the US military, astronomical.
“The all-in costs of this airplane are now estimated to be as much as $1.5 trillion, or a low-end estimate of the entire Iraq War,” Fallows writes.
Bragging about this program — one that Trump himself has, in the past, pointed out as an example of wasteful military spending — really renders the complaints about Puerto Rico a bit hollow. That’s especially true given that Trump has been under fire for a slow and incomplete response to Hurricane Maria, has publicly feuded with the mayor of San Juan, and appeared to blame the island’s government for the disaster in a series of tweets.
For more on the F-35, and why it’s so jarring for Trump to praise it like this, watch this video from Vox’s Sam Ellis: