Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff who was recently featured in a political ad from Republican Voters Against Trump, told MSNBC on Wednesday that President Donald Trump asked him and other officials whether the U.S. could swap Greenland for Puerto Rico because, in Trump's words, "Puerto Rico was dirty and the people were poor."
The exchange happened in August 2018 before DHS officials went on a disaster recovery trip to Puerto Rico, which had been devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, Taylor said.
"I did not take it as a joke," Taylor said. "The president expressed deep animus towards the Puerto Rican people behind the scenes. These are people who are recovering from the worst disaster we've seen in our lifetimes, and he is their president. He should be standing by them, not trying to sell them off to a foreign country."
Peter Brown, the White House special representative for Puerto Rico disaster recovery, said he has "never heard the president say anything of that sort."
Brown said that in all his interactions with Trump since February, when he was assigned to work with Puerto Rico, Trump "has been supportive of the unprecedented relief and recovery effort the federal government has launched for Puerto Rico."
Puerto Rico has been facing a cascade of crises over the last few years as it continues to recover from Hurricane Maria, the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years. It resulted in the deaths of at least 2,975 people and was the third-costliest hurricane. The island is also working on getting out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Trump has not yet publicly acknowledged or mourned the thousands who died during the hurricane's aftermath in 2017. Over the past few years, Trump has also doubled down on multiple occasions on his previous comments opposing disaster funding for Puerto Rico.
Last year, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans marched in the largest protest in the territory's recent history to oust Gov. Ricardo Rosselló over a political scandal involving him and a dozen members of his Cabinet.
Puerto Rico was hit by a sequence of seismic events that started Dec. 28, triggering multiple strong earthquakes that brought down hundreds of homes, schools and small businesses in January. Since then, over 9,800 tremors have been registered on the island.
Coronavirus cases and deaths are also rising in Puerto Rico. The island of 3.2 million people reported nearly 12,500 confirmed coronavirus cases Wednesday, more than 15,500 probable ones and at least 356 deaths, according to Puerto Rico's Health Department.
Allocated funds, but communities have seen little money
So far, the federal government has allocated nearly $46 billion to help the island recover from its multiple disasters. But most of the money, specifically funds for housing and infrastructure relief, have not made their way to communities on the island. Puerto Rico has received only nearly $17 billion, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Recovery Support Function Leadership Group.
Last month, FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor acknowledged that the Puerto Rican island of Vieques still doesn't have a functioning hospital, while thousands of other Puerto Ricans continue to wait for their homes to be rebuilt almost three years after Hurricane Maria. In a 2018 after-action report, FEMA also acknowledged agency failures in areas like staffing and coordination.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated historic amounts of funding for the island in the areas of housing, infrastructure and energy, close to $20 billion. Puerto Rico has received less than 8 percent so far.
Brown said Trump "has been very supportive of the work of big federal agencies such as FEMA and HUD," as well as agencies that "we normally don't think about during disaster recovery," such as the departments of Agriculture, Energy and Education, among others, as the island recovers from all of its crises.
Democratic lawmakers have blamed the funding delays on additional restrictions the federal housing agency has placed on Puerto Rico, citing concerns over "alleged corruption" and "fiscal irregularities," as well as "Puerto Rico's capacity to manage these funds."
"Corruption diverts valuable resources from the people of Puerto Rico," Brown said, adding that processes and oversight mechanisms are in place to ensure that the federal aid "turns into meaningful relief for the people of Puerto Rico."
But recent HUD audits of local governments' management of disaster grants suggest that its reasons for stalling funds to Puerto Rico don't fully hold up.
The audits found that Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida need to have a better systems to request and monitor federal grants to rebuild after the 2017 hurricanes. While all three U.S. jurisdictions had similar issues, HUD delayed only Puerto Rico's funding process.
Brown, who is visiting Puerto Rico this week, said his priorities include strengthening the island's "foundational infrastructures" to ensure reliable electricity access, clean water and resilient communications towers.
He is also working on reviving the island's pharmaceutical industry after the COVID-19 pandemic "revealed the vulnerability" of the American medical supply chain, which relies heavily on foreign companies.