Washington - As a confirmation that President Donald Trump has ordered to stop disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico, the White House has challenged the Democratic proposal that seeks to grant the island $ 600 million in emergency nutrition assistance.
Trump's ambush against the island –that media reports revealed in November- was clearly expressed in a statement by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on H.R. 268 Supplemental Appropriations Act to address recent natural disasters.
Hours earlier, The Washington Post revealed that Pam Patenaude, deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) resigned after disagreements with other members of the Trump administration over the White House´s attempts to withhold or delay funds committed to Puerto Rico.
On Wednesday, while the Democratic-controlled House passed H.R. 268 Supplemental Appropriations Act to mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters, the OMB sent a statement to Congress explaining that the $ 600 million allocation in nutrition assistance was "unnecessary"and "excessive".
The OMB statement includes “strong” objections “to language waiving non-Federal cost shares for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for Hurricanes María and Irma” that is matching requirements from FEMA regarding debris removal and emergency measures, that could reach up to 25 percent.
According to the OMB, the President will not veto the measure if it includes a proposal to reopen the federal government with an agreement on his claims to Congress to allocate $ 5,7 billion to finance the US-Mexico border wall.
But, Trump's opposition to the bill´s main proposals for the island may make it more difficult in the Senate.
So far, the Senate Republican majority has ruled out considering the House disaster relief bill, backing Trump´s demand for any measure intended to reopen the federal government –which is facing a historical partial shutdown since December 22- to include funds for the border wall.
The $ 600 million package for the Nutrition Assistance Program that Democrats have promoted, at the request of the government of Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, is intended to give continuity to another $ 1,27 billion that have been distributed since last March and that will lapse in two months.
These funds are not related to the $1,8 billion granted annually to the Nutrition Assistance Program. According to the Department of Family Affairs, 279,000 people or 125,000 families have been able to join PAN thanks to emergency funds. The $ 600 million request to Congress is intended to maintain the access of these people (access - eliminar) to PAN until September 30.
According to Professor Héctor Cordero Guzmán, from the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, a PAN beneficiary on the island receives an average of about $ 135 per month.
According to the OMB statement opposing the appropriation, “USDA has been working closely with Puerto Rico to develop and implement a plan to return the NAP to normal operations after providing significant additional resources immediately after the 2017 hurricanes.”
Regarding the waiver to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for part of FEMA´s work, the White House said that "costs shared are critical to ensure that work with impacted jurisdictions is collaborative and that both partners have incentives to operate efficiently and control costs."
On November 11, Axios revealed that President Trump requested the Republican congressional leadership not to grant new funds to the Island, since after reading a Wall Street Journal article suggesting that disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico would allow the island to pay off debt as part of the public debt restructuring process.
After that, two sources brought the same information to El Nuevo Día. And, yesterday, while explaining the reasons for Deputy Secretary Patenaude to quit HUD, The Washington Post also confirmed that Patenaude fought Trump's efforts to delay or divert HUD funds, which represent about $ 20 billion through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR).
“I didn’t push back. I advocated for Puerto Rico and assured the White House that Puerto Rico had sufficient financial controls in place and had put together a thoughtful housing and economic development recovery plan”, told Patenaude.
Although he previously avoided confirming Trump´s intention to stop further disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico, yesterday, Governor Rosselló Nevares, raised his tone when he publicly requested a meeting.
In a video message addressed to President Trump, Rosselló Nevares said that "all recent reports confirm that your administration is working towards eliminating recovery dollars for Puerto Rico based on these completely false and inaccurate preconceived notions," that the recovery funds will end up in creditors hands.
Previously, Trump questioned the management of public funds in Puerto Rico, claiming that the island´s leaders want everything to be done for them and ruling out the statehood proposal for the island.
Recently, he has been evaluating to divert disaster relief funds from Puerto Rico and other jurisdictions to finance the border wall.
It is not the first time
Carlos Mercader, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), warned that this is not the first time that OMB has opposed to new emergency allocations for the Island. He recalled that in May 2017, President Trump and Mick Mulvaney, now acting White House chief of staff and since then OMB director, opposed to grant $ 295 million in Medicaid funds.
As OMB director, Mulvaney also ruled out direct funds for Puerto Rico in the supplemental appropriations bill to mitigate disasters that the White House sent to Congress in the fall of 2017.
In both cases, Congress ended up approving funds for the island. Although the bill to mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters passed a Republican-controlled House in 2017, without direct funds for the island, the pressure in the Senate, where Democrats were strong, managed to get, early in 2018, about $ 15 billion in specific allocations for the island.
"I was fed up a long time ago when Trump treated us poorly in Puerto Rico. We deserve to be treated like people. You are not a plantation owner and we are not your slaves,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz tweeted Thursday.
Meanwhile, Resident Commissioner in Washington Jenniffer González, initially reacted by saying that it is a mistake and a "disservice" to Puerto Ricans to try to derail nutrition assistance funds. Then, González – who a few days ago threatened to leave the presidency of the US Republican Party in Puerto Rico if Trump diverted funds for the island to finance the border wall –, wrote that the “only permanent solution to the discrimination in NAP — and the Administration's opposition to additional NAP funding after Puerto Rico's disaster of a century — is statehood. Without votes and equality within the U.S., Puerto Rico will always be vulnerable to discrimination and second-class treatment."
For Democratic congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, it is "totally inconceivable" to cancel nutrition assistance funds for "the most vulnerable, who have already suffered greatly due to the unstable and ineffective response of the Trump administration" to Hurricane María.
Last night, Velázquez – along with Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Homeland Security committee, and Raúl Grijalva, chairman of the Natural Resources committee –, requested an HUD inspector general an investigation into the reports alleging that Trump wanted to stop Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) funds. She also requested to find out if there was any undue influence related to Patenaude´s resignation as HUD Deputy Secretary.
Political analyst Domingo Emanuelli considered it was an "outrage" and a discriminatory act the way that the Trump administration expresses itself against Puerto Rico. "Republicans on the island should seriously consider continuing in that party," said Emanuelli.
Enrique Fernández, director of the Puerto Rico Relief and Economic Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress (CAP), argued that after the inefficient and slow federal response to the hurricane, which is estimated to have caused 2,975 deaths, Trump must stop "placing the island and more Puerto Rican lives at risk".