The Distance Between Donald Trump and Puerto Rico

 In U.S.

How far away is Puerto Rico, from President Donald Trump’s perspective?
“This is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. And it’s a big
ocean, it’s a very big ocean,” he said, on Tuesday morning, before a
meeting with House members. Puerto Rico is, indeed, an island, but it is
also an American island, inhabited by three and a half million United
States citizens who are in immediate danger, owing to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Maria. The storm made landfall on the commonwealth more
than a week ago as a Category 4 hurricane and swept it from end to end,
destroying fields of crops and ripping the façades off of apartment
buildings. Relief workers have still not been able to reach some towns
in the interior. Trump announced that he would visit Puerto Rico and the
U.S. Virgin Islands, which were also hard hit, next Tuesday, which he
said was the soonest practical date. Meanwhile, the majority of people
in Puerto Rico remain without clean water, the electricity grid is
inoperable, cell towers are down, roads are impassable, food is rotting,
and many of the elderly and the sick have been left without care. All of
this is happening in America, rather than some place distant from this
country. But instead of emphasizing that closeness, or a sense of mutual
obligation, Trump has, so far, focussed on how different Puerto Rico is,
and what its people owe him, which is, above all, their gratitude.

“We have been really treated very, very nicely by the governor and by
everybody else,” Trump said later, during a press conference on Tuesday
afternoon with Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain. Trump was
referring to the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, and his
colleagues. “They know how hard we’re working and what a good job we’re
doing.” When a reporter nonetheless asked Trump whether he had perhaps
spent a disproportionate amount of time tweeting complaints about N.F.L. players kneeling during the national anthem, when he should have been
rallying support for Puerto Rico, Trump bristled, and insisted that his
attacks on the players were important for America. Then he went back to
talking about what he had done for Puerto Rico—“I have plenty of time on
my hands”—adding that the governor “is so grateful for the job we are
doing. In fact, he thanked me specifically for FEMA and all the first
responders.” Trump described that praise as “incredible” and “amazing,”
and said, “We have had tremendous reviews from government officials.”

Governor Rosselló, as it happened, had spent the previous day giving
interviews during which he had called urgently for more help for the
island. He has expressed appreciation for the hard work that FEMA has
been doing, along with members of the military—on Tuesday morning, the
Marines were clearing roads—but he made it very clear that it isn’t
enough. The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, whom Trump also
portrayed as an admirer, said that the island was in the grip of a
“humanitarian crisis.” Congress has not acted; FEMA is still working
with money appropriated for Hurricane Harvey. The Department of Homeland Security turned down a request from several members of Congress to waive
the Jones Act
, which places restrictions on shipping. And there is more that the government and military can do.

Puerto Rico is
limping along, with what are meant to be backup generators using
dwindling supplies of fuel. A number of air-control towers and radar
installations are also down, preventing sufficient supplies from coming
in. CNN reported that a children’s hospital in San Juan was running out
of power for the ventilators that were needed to keep a dozen boys and
girls alive—and that is in the capital, the most well-equipped and
accessible part of the island. Dozens of hospitals and clinics are
simply closed. Various headlines said that Rosselló has “begged” for
help, but the plea he made was not humbling for him but humiliating for
the rest of us, who have not done enough for our compatriots in Puerto
Rico or in the Virgin Islands. “We are proud U.S. citizens,” Rosselló, who had come to the aid of other U.S. citizens in time of need, said. It
was a point he was forced to make; as the Times noted, in a recent
poll of people on the mainland, half did not realize that Puerto Ricans
were natural-born American citizens.

Trump, at various instances, failed to correct that misapprehension.
Before the meeting with House members, he said, “I grew up in New York,
so I know many people from Puerto Rico. I know many Puerto Ricans. And
these are great people, and we have to help them.” Indeed, he said that
they were “fantastic people,” but he did not note, either then or during
the press conference, that they were American people. Even in a tweet
on Tuesday night in which he said “America’s hearts & prayers” were with
Puerto Rico and that we would get through this “TOGETHER!,” he did not
mention shared citizenship. He’ll likely get around to it—plenty of
people in his party, including Marco Rubio, have made the point—but the
delay has a cost. In a series of tweets on Monday night, which marked Trump’s first comments on Puerto Rico after a long interval, he stressed how different it was from Texas and Florida, because of logistics (it is an
island) and also financial status. “Texas & Florida are doing great but
Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure &
massive debt, is in deep trouble…” the tweets began. “It’s [sic] old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much
of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars….”—he continued
the thought in a third tweet—“owed to Wall Street and the banks which,
sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top
priorities—and doing well. #FEMA.”

Trump’s reminder that Puerto Rico has bills to pay was, at best,
ill-timed. In fact, it was hard to read it as anything but an injunction
to lower expectations: Puerto Ricans were already poor—why would anyone
think they would, or should, be in as good shape as Florida or Texas?
Meanwhile, his comment about food, water, and medical care “doing well”
was demonstrably false. The only limit to his blitheness was his
penchant for dramatic language (with Prime Minister Rajoy, he called
Puerto Rico a “wipeout”) and his tendency to brag. At the meeting with
House members, Trump said, “We’ve gotten A-pluses on Texas and on
Florida, and we will also on Puerto Rico.” The grading period seemed to
have ended a moment later, when he added, “I think we’re really getting
really good marks for the work we’re doing.”

At the press conference, Trump repeated that the big problem with
getting help to Puerto Rico was “a thing called the Atlantic Ocean. This
is tough stuff.” It is a tough body of water—all the more so, lately,
due to a climate crisis that Trump denies—but that argument would be
more persuasive if Maria had hit two days ago, rather than a week ago.
Governor Rosselló observed that if Puerto Rico is not livable, its
residents could always move en masse to the mainland. And why shouldn’t
they move from one part of America to another, if they want to? This is
their home.

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