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Trump announces aid for Puerto Rico, infusing politics in an apparent play for Florida voters

Polling shows Trump and Biden are tied in Florida, where thousands of Puerto Ricans relocated after Hurricane Maria.
Image: President Donald Trump tosses a roll of paper towels into a crowd
President Donald Trump tosses a roll of paper towels into a crowd as he visits those affected by Hurricane Maria at Calvary Chapel in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Oct. 3, 2017.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced Friday he is sending $13 billion in disaster aid to Puerto Rico, an unexpected move years after a hurricane devastated the island and 45 days before the election, in what appears to be an appeal to voters in Florida.

The aid was originally approved by Congress in 2018, but Trump and members of his administration previously refused to send all of the money to the U.S. territory.

In the three years since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, thousands of people relocated from the U.S. territory to Florida, making them an important voting bloc in a state that could play a key role in deciding the November election. While Puerto Ricans living on the island cannot participate in the presidential elections, those who have moved to Florida or other U.S. states are treated just like any other American citizen.

Polling shows a near tie in Florida between Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden. Trump appears in polls to have an advantage among Florida’s Cuban-American voters while Biden holds a strong lead with the state's roughly 1 million Puerto Ricans.

Trump has repeatedly opposed sending federal dollars to Puerto Rico, accusing the U.S. territory of having “squandered away or wasted” past funds.

Trump has been repeatedly criticized for his posture towards the U.S. territory. Last month, Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff, said that 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 Trump administration’s announcement that it would be distributing the long sought after aid comes after Biden's campaign unveiled a plan for Puerto Rico during a visit to Florida on Tuesday.

In announcing the new aid, Trump infused electoral politics, leveling criticism at Biden as part of his remarks. Trump cited a tax incentive that Congress allowed to expire in 2006, when Biden was a member of the Senate.

“We have done more for Puerto Rico than anybody,” Trump said.

The White House said the funding for Puerto Rico would include $11.6 billion in federal aid to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical system and school infrastructure. The funding was provided to FEMA in the 2018 budget, the White House said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused the Trump administration of having “dithered and delayed and refused to deliver timely disaster aid for the people of Puerto Rico. Slow walking this aid, and so much funding overall, for so long is downright unacceptable.”

Based on accusations of mismanagement, the Trump administration has imposed additional restrictions and requirements on Puerto Rico’s use of federal funds because of corruption and financial mismanagement concerns on the bankrupt island. However, the most high-profile public corruption case involving disaster recovery funds involved federal employees — two FEMA officials who were charged with fraud and bribery surrounding $1.8 billion in contracts to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid.

At the same time, most of the recovery funds allocated to Puerto Rico have not been disbursed to the island.

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.

Puerto Rico was then 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.

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.