Trump says he’s ‘the best thing’ for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria aid package

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration defended its slow approval of $11.6 billion in federal grant money to Puerto Rico on Friday, three years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, blaming “continual instability” for the delay.

But Democrats questioned the timing of the aid announcement, less than 50 days before the presidential election in which both candidates are aggressively pursuing Puerto Rican voters in Florida.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration grants, which will go to the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority and the island’s education system, are two of the “the largest obligations of funding ever awarded,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.

Before the Friday announcement, Congress had already appropriated nearly $50 billion in aid, of which about $16.7 billion has been disbursed.

President Donald Trump has previously criticized aid for Puerto Rico, which he said has been “squandered away or wasted” by local politicians.

Trump has repeatedly feuded with Puerto Rican officials over the course of his presidency, characterizing the island as “one of the most corrupt places on Earth” and calling into question the official death toll from Hurricane Maria.

But on Friday, he touted the new aid as a “great package” for Puerto Rico that would repair thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines in the island’s electrical grid.

“Puerto Rico’s been hit very, very hard by a lot of different storms, and they’re great people. It’s a great place — I know it well. Great place,” Trump said at a news conference. “We’ve done more for Puerto Rico, by far, than anybody.”

“I have a lot of friends in Puerto Rico, and I have told them about it, asked them about it, conceptually what do you think — and they’re very excited,” he said.

Trump said his administration would also be working to bring back pharmaceutical manufacturing to the island.

“We used to have pharmaceutical manufacturing at levels that few places had, and a lot of that’s left Puerto Rico, and we’re going to bring that back — especially now since our emphasis is going to be making our product,” Trump said. “So we’re going to bring pharmaceutical manufacturing back to Puerto Rico.

“At one point it was the talk of the world, and now it’s the talk of the world in a different way,” he added.

Puerto Rico has struggled to recover from the disaster wrought by the hurricane ever since it struck the island three years ago. The financially distressed local power authority will receive $9.6 billion of the new funding.

The new aid announcement comes as Trump is attempting to woo Puerto Rican voters living in South Florida.

Democrats accused the president of playing politics with financial aid.

“A genuine question for the Trump administration: Where have you been the last three years for Puerto Rico?” said Rep. Darren Soto, a Democrat representing Florida’s 9th District and the first congressman of Puerto Rican descent elected from Florida.

He accused Trump of blocking disaster relief and “treating Americans in Puerto Rico like second-class citizens, and acting like they should be grateful to get any help at all.”

On Tuesday, during a visit to Florida, the Democratic nominee for president, former Vice President Joe Biden, laid out a plan for rebuilding Puerto Rico that would create a federal working group reporting directly to the Oval Office.

Trump said Friday that Biden “devastated” the island as part of the Obama administration.

“For the people of Puerto Rico, they were a disaster for you,” Trump said. “I’m the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico. Nobody even close.”

A senior administration official told McClatchy that the aid is “in addition to the billions of dollars in recovery already sent and thousands of government employees at work on the ground since Maria.”

“The continual instability regarding the leadership of Puerto Rico has slowed this process,” the official said. “We have a duty to the American people to protect taxpayer dollars.”

“In the past, billions of taxpayer dollars had been wasted by the Puerto Rican government. With new leadership, our hope is that trust will continue to be rebuilt between U.S. taxpayers and Puerto Rico,” the official said.


(Miami Herald Washington correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.)


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