As Puerto Rico Reels, Trump Fixates On Island’s ‘Tremendous’ Debt

President Donald Trump speaks to the National Association of Manufactures at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Friday, Sept. 29, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/AP
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During brief remarks Friday on the continuing aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump maintained his laser focus on the island’s debt. He also defended the federal effort to bring aid to the territory, pointing out how Puerto Rico being surrounded by “big water, ocean water” presents unique challenges.

Though the island is still reeling from the hurricane, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm over a week ago, Trump has spent an inordinate amount of his attention following the storm on the private interests set to profit, or at least recover their losses, following the disaster.

“This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water,” Trump said at the start of a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers on his proposed tax overhaul. “We’re closely coordinated with the territory and local governments which are totally, and unfortunately, unable to handle this crisis on their own — just totally unable to.”

Trump said the island’s electrical grid and other infrastructure “were at their life’s end prior to the hurricanes, and now virtually everything has been wiped out and we will have to really start all over again. We are literally starting from scratch.”

“Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort — it will end up being one of the biggest ever — will be funded and organized,” he said, “and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island. 

In 2016, former President Barack Obama signed into law Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which in turn established a presidentially-appointed financial oversight board that took control of the island’s finances. Puerto Rico has struggled with tens of billions of dollars in outstanding debts to bondholders, in addition to a deep recession.

Trump has obsessed over money following the devastating hurricane: Before he authorized a waiver for the Jones Act, which restricts shipping between American ports to ships built, owned and operated by Americans, he said of the waiver: “We’re thinking about that, but we have a lot of shippers — a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted.”

He’s also tweeted multiple times in recent days, as the crisis continues on the island, about Puerto Rico’s debt. On Friday, he wrote on twitter that “[b]ig decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!”

“There is no electricity,” Trump told the manufacturers’ association Friday, before moving on to promoting his tax plan. “The plants are gone. They’re gone. It’s not like, let’s send a crew in to fix them. You have to build brand new electric. Sewage systems, wiped out. There’s never been anything like this. So there remains a lot of work to do.”

Later in the speech, he made a point to return to discussing Puerto Rico, but only while bragging about the nation’s GDP growth: “Unfortunately, having the hurricanes hit Texas, and Florida, and Louisiana, and, obviously, other locations — especially where we are right now with the kind of money we’re spending on Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands — it’s going to be a little bit of a hit. But we are doing extremely well even this quarter, despite the hurricanes.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously assistant editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at mshuham@talkingpointsmemo.com and on Twitter @mattshuham.
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